by Leandro Anton Castro
Corrected June 2, 2014 6:40 PM
MANILA – It was like going into a cramped trial court; only the verdict was not uttered aloud. The only noise that ruled the lobby came from the television tuned in to the well-known local noon time show. The eyes of the bystanders spoke louder than the gay comedian blurting out jokes and funny comments. Walking in between the seated spectators felt like the final walk before being convicted of a crime.
Even though Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) tests are well publicized online and through posters, there is still a general notion of embarrassment when taking the test, as if it ultimately denotes promiscuity. “The first time is always the most frightening. Most are misinformed when availing this kind of test from healthcare providers. It always felt like people are going to judge you as immoral when they see you walk into RITM,” Tony (not his real name), a patient taking the HIV test for the third time, said. The Research Institute for Tropical Medicine satellite clinic in Manila has been providing free confidential HIV tests for years now.
Misinformation leads people to shake off the idea of actually getting tested or lie about their identity. “While we always assure our patients that all the information they shared to us will be kept confidential and, if ever they tested positive for HIV, they will be provided assistance from concerned groups, some still lie about their real name and personal information,” Rey-Ann Cunanan, a counselor at the RITM clinic, said. True enough, during our trip to the clinic, a patient admitted lying about the details he wrote at the information sheet to his counselor during the post-counselling session.
With the Department of Health’s recent expression of desire to revise the AIDS Law and perform mandatory HIV testing, some already expressed opposition to the impending move. “It might be a good step, but it’s too ahead of our time. Masyado pang negative ang tingin ng mga tao sa mga nagpapa-HIV test, lalo pa doon sa mga nag-popositive, kaya baka lalo lang lumala yung discrimination (People still have a negative view on those who take HIV tests, and a lot worse on those who tested positive so it might just aggravate the discrimination),” Paul (not his real name), another patient waiting for his HIV test results, said.
While health secretary Enrique Ona already clarified during their May 26 dialogue that HIV testing will remain voluntary and confidential, Network to Stop AIDS-Philippines (NSAP) earlier denounced the mandatory HIV testing. “The current legal framework allows for various modes of HIV testing, but they have to be voluntary and confidential. This is clearly rights-based, but this is also premised on existing evidence that coercive modes of HIV testing actually result to a decrease in the coverage of testing – those who need to get tested fear discrimination and abuse, so they hide underground once authorities require HIV testing,” NSAP declared through their Facebook page on May 7.
The HIV toll in the Philippines continues to rise, but the acceptance of people living with HIV and AIDS has not kept up that well. The challenge for now is to remove the stigma and positively encourage Filipinos with high risk of contracting the virus to actually take the test and stop passing it on to others.