Preventing HIV among the young

TRUE BLOOD A medical technologist is set to conduct an HIV screening test on blood serum samples from clients at the social hygiene clinic of the Manila Health Department on Nov. 28, 2008. AFP FILE PHOTO

THE Department of Health (DoH) has reported 86 new cases of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that leads to AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), among adolescents and children in January 2023.

In its latest data registry, the agency noted that the tally is part of the 1,454 individuals who were confirmed with HIV during the month.

Of the 86 cases, 79 were 10 to 19 years old and seven were children below 9 years old. Sexual contact was cited as the mode of transmission of HIV among adolescent cases, except for one case which had no data for the mode of transmission.

Meanwhile, acquired cases of ages 2 to 9 years old were by children of infected mothers. For the remaining 39 confirmed cases, about eight were ages 15 to 24 years old; 22 were 25 to 34 years old; eight cases were 35 to 49 years old; and one was 50 years old or older.

A total of 110,736 HIV cases have been recorded nationwide with 6,383 reported deaths since 1984. These figures are alarming, since the ages of those infected are becoming younger. Fully 90 percent of the new infections were recorded among young males who had sex with males. Should the trend persist, the number of HIV cases will balloon to over 330,000 by 2030.

Last January, the DoH and the Philippine National AIDS Council developed action plans to address the high number of HIV cases in the country. The strategies were harmonized with the previously developed 7th AIDS Medium Term Plan, which highlights the five strategic pillars of the master plan: prevent, treat, protect, strengthen and sustain.

No effective cure has been found for HIV. So, once you have HIV, you have it for life. But there are effective methods to prevent getting HIV and one of them is being correctly informed.

As the latest data indicate, more clearly needs to be done to spread awareness of HIV among young people. A study from the University of the Philippines indicates that youth awareness of HIV/AIDS has dropped to an all-time low.

The percentage of Filipino youth who are aware of HIV and/or AIDS has declined to its lowest level since 1994.

Based on the 2021 Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Study (YAFS5), 76 percent of young Filipinos ages 15 to 24 had heard of HIV and/or AIDS, a 19-percentage point drop from 1994 when awareness stood at 95 percent. This sustains the decrease observed in 2013, when the share of youth who had heard of HIV and/or AIDS declined to 83 percent from 95 percent in 2002.

Among those who had heard of HIV and/or AIDS, the YAFS5 also examined the percentage of those with comprehensive knowledge of HIV, based on five standardized statements consisting of a mix of correct information and misconceptions about the virus. Only 19 percent, or one in five youths, had comprehensive knowledge of HIV. The percentage significantly changed among women, from 16 percent in 2013 to 19 percent in 2021, but not among men, which only slightly changed from 18 percent in 2013 to 19 percent in 2021.

Myths persist. More than half, or 52 percent of Filipino youths, incorrectly believed that a person can get HIV by sharing food with someone who is infected. About two in five, on the other hand, did not believe that a healthy-looking person can have HIV.

Some 35 percent of young people also did not believe that a person can reduce the risk of getting HIV infection by using a condom during sex, contrary to multiple evidence that consistent condom use is very effective against HIV transmission. YAFS5 data show a low level of condom use during high-risk sexual activities, such as transactional and casual sex, among male youth.

Information gaps can stall efforts to arrest the number of HIV infections in the Philippines, which has the fastest-growing HIV epidemic in the Asia-Pacific region. We suggest a comprehensive media campaign that also includes a social media component, since studies by the Department of Health show that social media apps on dating are being patronized even by teenagers. These dating apps are also one of the pathways for sexual encounters among the young.

Concrete action needs to be done, since there is still no cure for HIV/AIDS. The bomb is ticking for the Philippines.

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