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The naked truth about AIDS: GOs and NGOs fight to keep AIDS from spreading. (Cover Story: Reproductive Health).

The Philippines has only 1,676 HIV-AIDS (Human Immune-Deficiency Virus and the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) cases, a very low number if compared to other countries, a fact that has, baffled other countries and has led to speculation that the Philippines is guilty of under-reporting.

This perception is, however, refuted by Dr. Elvira Belingon, AIDS Coordinator of the Center for Health Development-CAR.

This position was supported by Dr. Charles Cheng, chair of the Baguio AIDS-Watch Council (AWAC) and Medical Director of the Baguio Filipino-Chinese General Hospital, who said that when the first HIV cases were reported in the 1980s in the Philippines, government and non-government institutions immediately went to work, implementing policies and programs meant to prevent the spread of the dreaded disease.

At the time, health experts estimated that by the year 2000, the Philippines would have about 100,000 to 200,000 HIV-AIDS cases. Dr. Cheng said that should such a number of cases become a reality, we would require a lot government and private financial resources, services and facilities.

Thus, the government went to work early. The Department of Health (DOH) launched a massive information-education campaign about sexually transmitted diseases (STD), HIV and AIDS. Complementing the education efforts were trainings for health professionals to detect and handle HIV positive individuals and the institutionalization of a vigilant surveillance system that would detect and keep track of new HIV cases.

In 1998, Republic Act 8504 or the Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act was passed to further strengthen government efforts on AIDS prevention.

Paralleling these initiatives were the non-government organizations (NGO) such as AWAC, ReachOut Foundation and the Health Action Information Network (HAIN) who began their own comprehensive information and education campaign for the general public. Some even offered health services for individuals. Youth-focused NGOs such as the Baguio Center for Young Adults, which concentrated on adolescent reproductive health, integrated AIDS education into their programs and projects.

AWAC, a Baguio-based group, first targeted high risk groups such as sex workers, drug users, tourists, overseas contract workers (OCWs), military and police officers, even students, with education campaigns because they were, according to AWAC, more vulnerable to AIDS. They also trained their own health professionals and forged partnerships with DOH and other organizations to explore other possible ways of preventing the spread of HIV-AIDS. At present, AWAC enjoys a considerable amount of support from the city government for their annual programs.

All these efforts have succeeded in lowering the projected number of cases experts estimated the Philippines would have by 2000.

Parodixically, the success of these efforts have caused some institutions and individuals to drop their guards. Some go so far as to declare that AIDS is no longer "an issue".

Still, some feel that the efforts are wanting. Citing the Population Reference Bureau estimate that 95% of people infected with HIV live in developing countries (half of which are women), they believe that government (policies and programs do not seem to address the issue as extensively as it should. Health services for example, continue to cater only to specific groups such as people of reproductive age. In some communities, health services do not reach the people at all.

Health experts are becoming apprehensive over the students' knowledge on STD, HIV-AIDS because of the Department of Education's new curriculum which reduced the number of subjects.

Dr. Belingon has commented that AIDS and sex education in schools are not discussed extensively. Teachers also admit that AIDS education is not as comprehensive as it ideally should be.

Dr. Cheng says that now more than ever, there is a need to strengthen AIDS advocacy. The fact that there are already cases in the Cordilleras means that government and non-government organizations, as well as individuals should be more vigilant in the AIDS prevention campaign. He said:

"Just because there are no cases means we should drop our guard. We should not wait for AIDS cases to increase."
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Geographic Code:9PHIL
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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