The new HIV/AIDS cases recorded in June was no better than the previous month's. It still breached the thousand mark, although insignificantly lower.

The HIV/AIDS Registry of the Philippines (HARP) under the Epidemiology Bureau, an attached agency of the Department of Health, reported 1,013 individuals were infected with HIV or had AIDS. The figure was 1,098 last May.

Of the number, 125 progressed to AIDS, where an individual's immune system is severely compromised.

The May record was the highest number of new cases since tracking began in 1984. There are now 45,023 HIV/AIDS patients, with 4,306 of these having AIDS.

In an earlier press conference, the DOH, together with UNAIDS, revealed that while the Philippines has the fastest growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in Asia-Pacific, the country's numbers are still not considered "high."

Nevertheless, the Health department has retooled its programme for males having sex with males (MSMs), who are primarily affected; made antiretroviral drugs available for free for anyone who tests positive with HIV; and has doubled its efforts in disseminating correct knowledge regarding HIV transmission.

Worrisome statistics

The trend continues where majority of the new cases reported were asymptomatic at 88 percent. In May, 87 percent of the cases were asymptomatic at the time of reporting.

“Most were male with 93 percent, the median age was 27 years old with an age range of 1 to 73 years,” the HARP said in its report.

Sexual intercourse remains the top mode of transmission with 969 of the cases, while needle sharing among drug-injecting users was second, followed by mother-to-child transmission.

About 84 percent of infection through sexual contact were among MSMs. It was likewise recorded that 11 pregnant women were diagnosed with HIV, as well as 72 overseas Filipino workers (OFW).

HARP further noted distribution among the cases, with nearly half of MSM cases recorded in the National Capital Region, while nearly all IDU cases were in Region 7, and majority of female transactional sexual contact cases were from Region 3.

Broken down by age, 32 percent belonged in the 15-24 age group, while there were 49 adolescents between the ages of 10 to 19, who tested positive for the virus.

In the same month, 29 died of the disease, majority of whom belonged to the 35-49 age group.

NCR accounts for majority of the cases with 36 percent of the cases, then Region 4A with 17 percent, and Region 3 with 11 percent.

90-90-90 strategy

While the numbers continue to be cause for concern, Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial impressed upon the public that something was being done to address the health problem. She said if HIV/AIDS was left unattended, the increase in number of cases would have been much higher.

Secretary Ubial said if DOH did not have interventions, the increase in number of new cases would be far higher.

Secretary Ubial said if DOH did not have interventions, the increase in number of new cases would be far higher.

“We had a lot of interventions during this period (2010-2016) that actually ensured that our epidemic will not be as high as if we did not do anything. Because if we have not (done anything), we will have 177 percent increase and not a lower 140 percent,” she said.

It is prepared to be more aggressive in the fight against HIV/AIDS by mounting the 90-90-90 strategy, which even UNAIDS called "an ambitious treatment target" to help end the AIDS epidemic.

Under the strategy, 90 percent of people with HIV will know their status, while 90 percent of patients will have sustained antiretroviral therapy, and 90 percent will have viral suppression by 2020.

Secretary Ubial said they hope to address the health scourge by increasing correct knowledge and preventing transmission especially among high-risk groups. This means continuing to urge the public to practice abstinence, use condoms consistently and properly, undergo testing and treating the risk groups.

Sundown clinics

Meanwhile, the Health department is targeting to open special clinics, especially in urban areas, to make testing and counseling even more accessible.

The strategy is to focus on 117 cities where 80 percent of the new infections have been reported, and to open at least one HIV clinic in each city.

The clinics will have convenient hours for people working late into the night, and it will provide counseling, prevention, laboratory and treatment options. There are already three such Sundown clinics in Quezon City.

The clinics ensure confidentiality, and it has peer groups dedicated in assisting the patients.

Furthermore, anyone who tests positive for HIV will automatically be given free antiretroviral medicines. This is a vast improvement from the protocol before when patients need to undergo confirmatory tests for their CD4 count.

“Before, we need confirmatory tests for patients, and this takes a week or so. But now, the protocol is that after 2 positive tests, the patient can avail of the treatment - also on the same day,” Secretary Ubial said, adding the new protocol was just adopted this year.

DOH has also allotted Php 30,000 per patient per year for outpatient services.

Anti-HIV strategies

Dr Gerard Belimac, of the National AIDS and STI Prevention and Control Program, noted the four major areas in HIV/AIDS prevention.

“The programme prioritizes the high burden cities in addressing the needs, and we design the program so that services are responsive [and] are being delivered,” he said.

In terms of prevention, the department mainly seeks to disseminate correct knowledge, and will make use of education and counselling. In the area of diagnosis, DOH is providing free testing to key populations.

Where treatment is concerned, anti-HIV drugs are given for free with an allotted budget for outpatient services. In terms of care, DOH is partnering with community-based organizations to ensure psycho-social help and adherence to treatment.

Finally, in terms of access, services are given in social hygiene clinics, HIV treatment hubs and even partner organizations give services which complement that of the government. MIMS

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