The Philippines has long been considered an HIV epidemic waiting to happen. It has all the risk factors that point to this. Mysteriously, the HIV level in the archipelago remained “low and slow” since the first AIDS case was diagnosed in 1984. But the latest statistics seem to suggest that the Philippines’ luck is running out. About 10 new cases are reported daily. The total for the month of June was 295, a 66 percent increase on the same month last year. Perhaps the performance of the government and NGOs has been so good in the past decade or so, allowing dreaded complacency to set in. It didn’t help that local and foreign funding partners’ enthusiasm has waned because the threat seemed to have disappeared. Unfortunately, it only hid in a dark place but is now rearing its ugly head again. Many are still unaware that it is staging a comeback. Only a few realize what is happening. The United Nations was the first to raise the alarm as it admitted there’s a “hidden epidemic” sweeping the country. It said that unless this is stopped, any prospect of prosperity on the part of the Philippines might “turn to dust.” Some Christian leaders, too, knew of the potential eruption of HIV/AIDS that will definitely stunt national development. That is a heartening development. This may make up for the insufficient effort of the government in informing the public about the health and economic threat that is now in our midst. Bishop Daniel C. Arichea Jr. of the United Methodist Church stated during a workshop on HIV/AIDS last August that, “like a volcano… [the epidemic] threatens to explode in the Philippines.” Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle of the Roman Catholic Church said the alarming trend necessitates “a pastoral response by local churches.” Both Catholic and Protestant churches are beginning to actively tackle the issue again, which might help prevent a spike in the number of HIV cases the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS predicted recently. It was an enlightened choice of vigilance over complacency. It is foolish to think that past anti-HIV efforts, albeit brave and effective, would permanently shoo away HIV/AIDS. We know now that the AIDS virus has a way of surviving. Woe to those who put their guards down! Poverty and lack of education on sexual health are two of the causes of the epidemic. Hence, the government, NGOs and the Church must intensify anti-poverty and education efforts. Lack of employment opportunities drive women to the commercial sex industry and exposure to the virus. Call center workers and overseas Filipino workers are likewise at risk, largely due to ignorance. Efforts to prevent an epidemic must focus on these groups. Only then can we regain our bragging rights for being “low and slow.” Fort Nicolas is a newspaper editor based in Manila.
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