Life behind the numbers: The current state of HIV in Cebu

By: King Anthony Perez May 03,2018 - 10:20 PM

William and Mico (real names withheld) knew each other through a virtual encounter- in a social media application for men who are attracted to the same sex.

They decided to meet up, and as soon as they got caught up in an intimate situation, Mico, revealed crucial information not normally disclosed to a mere stranger.

“There was something with me,” recounted 34-year-old Mico of the exact words he told William as they lay naked next to each other.

William began to enumerate every disease he knew, until he stopped guessing and instead gave Mico a meaningful look.

He had, by then, figured that Mico was positive for HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).

By February 2015, the two men decided to enter into a serodiscordant or mixed-status relationship, where one partner is infected by HIV and the other is not.

To this day, William, now a 27 year old pharmacy student, remains uninfected by the virus after more than three years of being together with Mico.

“The most opportune time to tell the person is before putting him at risk,” Mico explained to Cebu Daily News.

Jack (real name withheld), a registered nurse, has lived with his boyfriend for four years. On their second year, the relationship took an unexpected turn when Jack learned that he was positive for HIV in March 2016.

“Nakahilak ko (I really cried). I didn’t know how to say it to him,” recounted Jack.

Upon learning that Jack was HIV positive, his boyfriend had himself tested and learned that he also carried the virus.

Now a seroconcordant couple, where both partners are HIV positive, Jack and his boyfriend remain in the relationship.

Reckless explorations

Jack, who is a friend of Mico and William, remembers being devastated upon learning of his condition.

Being an asymptomatic carrier of the disease, Jack did not suffer any serious symptoms nor did he feel unhealthy.

He said that he only knew about the infection when he was required to undergo HIV screening for a job application.

Following the results of his medical exam, a non-stock, non-profit Cebu City hospital refused to hire him as a nurse upon learning of his health status.

“Nahadlok ko mu-apply og work balik kay basin naa na say testing (I was afraid to apply for another job because I might be tested again ),” said Jack.

Asked how he acquired HIV, Jack believed that it was the result of having sex with different men even when he was in a relationship.

“Ambot ngano mangita pa jud og laing putahe (I don’t know why I had to look for a different dish),” Jack said.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), majority of people living with HIV are asymptomatic and will develop signs of HIV-related illness within 5 to 10 years if left without treatment.

Unlike Jack, the signs were almost clear to Mico about six years ago when he was found to have HIV.

Mico visited several doctors after experiencing difficulty in breathing and suffering pneumonia.

He was in denial, at first; but remembering that three of his friends succumbed to unexplainable deaths pushed him to have an HIV test.

Mico had an abnormally low T-cell count similar to a person living with Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

Mico disclosed that he once lived a reckless life of casual sexual encounters with multiple men and recreational drugs.

“For example if I use drugs, and I’m really really high, wala na’y law among sex. You are bangag (our sex no longer has rules. You are completely out of your mind).”

The current state of HIV

Mico, Jack and his boyfriend are just three of the more than four thousand people living with HIV and AIDS in Cebu since 1984.

Based on a February 2018 report of the Department of Health (DOH) Epidemiology Bureau, there are a total of 52,280 reported cases of HIV and AIDS in the Philippines. Nearly 2,600 of these men and women succumbed to death.

The latest report also placed Central Visayas on the third spot among regions with the highest number of newly diagnosed cases of HIV and AIDS, accounting for 10% of the total number of new cases in the country.

In Central Visayas, Cebu has the highest number of recorded HIV and AIDS cases, with 4,340 cases.

Compared to Cebu, the rest of the region — Bohol, Negros Oriental and Siquijor — have a relatively lower HIV/AIDS count based on cases recorded as of January 2018.

A significant number of HIV patients fell within the 25-34 age category; while the youngest was recorded at 5 years old and the oldest at 53.
Most HIV carriers were male.

While the national AIDS report stressed that sexual contact was the predominant mode of virus transmission, in Central Visayas, intravenous drug use was found to be the common mode of transmission followed by men having sex with men.

Mico, who had used injectible drugs in the past, however believes that he acquired HIV through reckless sexual behavior and not through the sharing of needles.

“When I used drugs, I used my own syringes,” explained Mico.

Mico believed that men having sex with men, which he considered a “trend” now, were at a higher risk of acquiring the virus because of the lack of an avenue to talk about HIV and reproductive health in general.

For his part, Dr. Van Philip Baton, regional medical coordinator of the government’s AIDS/HIV, STI Control and Prevention Program, said the rise in recorded HIV cases was due to the health department’s HIV prevention and control measures.

Baton said that the efforts of DOH to record all HIV positive cases and to treat infected individuals upon identification will end the rise of HIV cases in the long run.

A United Nations report stated that the Philippines registered the fastest-growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Asia-Pacific region within a six-year period.

But according to Baton, while the country has one of the fastest growing HIV epidemics, Philippine figures are still lower compared to other places in Asia.

“It is actually good news that we see an increase. The epidemic is still young. You expect it to go up. But around 2030, you do not expect it to go up anymore. Because you expect that government is doing something about it.”

Trying to live like there’s no HIV

Jack and his boyfriend are now both employed at a treatment hub and have devoted their lives to advocating HIV awareness and assisting screenings.

While his boyfriend initially planned to return to his hometown in Leyte, Jack suggested for him to stay, since access to medication was better in Cebu.

Even though the risk is higher with both of them suffering from HIV, the couple continues to have protected sex.

Like Jack and his boyfriend, Mico and William are also involved in community-based organizations promoting HIV awareness and treatment.

William said Mico is his “human alarm”, who would remind him to take his antiretroviral (ARV) drugs.

The couple openly declares that they continue to have sex even without protection solely relying on Mico’s condition which, they believe, has now gone better.

“Low man iya viral load. (His viral load is low). The number of virus is not transmissible. So it’s okay. Wala naman sad siya nagpabadlong (He is not promiscuous anymore),” said William.

Though unfazed by Mico’s condition, William admits that having a partner with HIV was difficult.

Mico often experiences headaches, sweating, vomitting and acid reflux, all side effects of his medications.

“Lisod siya to adjust. Murag kamong duha ang naay HIV (It is difficult to adjust. It is like both of you have HIV),” said William.
(To be continued..)

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