Ex-DOH chief blames Arroyo, Church for sharp increase of HIV infections in PH
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MANILA, Philippines - Former Department of Health (DOH) secretary Alberto Romualdez has blamed the Arroyo administration for the rise of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) cases in the country.
Romualdez said the previous administration's alleged obedience to the Catholic Church's dicates to stop the distribution of free condoms had resulted in the sharp increase in the number of Filipinos who had contracted the dreaded disease.
Romualdez, DOH chief during the Estrada administration, recalled that it was in 1997 when the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) informed the Philippine government of its plan to phase out donations of reproductive health (RH) supplies, including condoms, to developing countries.
“But USAID gave us a timetable. And the DOH said, ‘it was okay, we'll start...our own procurement so that supplies would not run out’,” Romualdez told Senate reporters on Monday after forum on HIV/AIDS initiated by Sen. Pilar Juliana "Pia' Cayetano.
“Unfortunately, we changed leadership in 2001 and the new (administration) under the influence of the Church put an embargo on the procurement of (reproductive health) supplies by the national government,” added Romualdez.
According to the former DOH chief, it was during the phase-out of the USAID donation from 2001 to 2006 that the incidence of HIV rose steeply. However, he said the Arroyo administration had refused to procure condoms for HIV prevention.
Romuladez said the DOH at the time had to rely on a separate donation from the United Nations Population Fund, “which was a smaller (volume) compared to what the need (was).”
“That’s the connection. It was in 2001 when the procurement stopped, so the government was not able to (replenish) the products that were being phased-out by USAID and other donors. In 2006, when the supplies finally ran out, the incidence of HIV began to climb,” he said.
“The purchase order (for condoms) was disapproved. It was stopped because of pressures from the Church. An embargo (was imposed) on all kinds of RH supplies,” added Romualdez.
Romualdez stood up at one point during the Senate forum and noted from the Power Point presentation made by DOH Assistant Secretary Dr. Eric Tayag, head of the National Epidemiology Center (NEC), that the incidence of HIV infection shot up in 2006 when the supplies of condom were running out.
Figures from the NEC showed that from 1997 to 2001, HIV incidence in the Philippines was less than 1,000 cases a year.
During the early years of the Arroyo administration, Tayag showed a graph indicating that from 2002 to 2006, the annual incidence increased to more than 1,000 and finally increased by 668 percent from 2007 to 2012.
Tayag’s presentation also showed that from one new case of HIV every three days in 2000, the DOH recorded one new case a day in 2007.
In 2010, the department recorded four new cases a day that later increased to seven new cases after a year.
At present, the DOH lists nine new cases a day of HIV infection, most of which occur in men who engage in sex with other men (MSM).
Romualdez said it was in 2006 when the annual increase rose to 26 percent from only 18 percent in 2005 and 17 percent in 2004.
“As you can see from the graph, we were low and slow on HIV infection until 2006,” said Romualdez.
The ex-DOH head said the department during the Estrada administration distributed condoms for free in areas with populations known to engage in MSM and other “risky sexual behaviour.”
Tayag’s report also included the following:
- Over the last decade, the number of Filipinos infected with HIV has risen by more than 25 percent;
- The Philippines is now among the countries where new HIV/AIDS infections have increased by 25 percent in the last decade including Bangladesh, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova and Sri Lanka according to the 2012 Global Report of the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS);
- The situation in the Philippines is the reverse of “trends in many low- and 2012 middle-income countries… able to reduce the rate of HIV infections by more than 50 percent from 2001 to 2011";
- The age bracket between 15-24 years old is the fastest growing group in terms of HIV infection and
- In MSM cases, the NEC reported that 45 percent of those who were infected with HIV said condoms were “not available” at the time of infection; 27 percent said they did not like to use condoms, 11 percent said their partner objected; 11 percent thought condom use was “not necessary”; three percent “forgot” to use condoms: another three percent said they did not know how to use condoms while one percent said condoms are “too expensive.”
Teresita Marie Bagasao, country coordinator of UNAIDS, urged senators to pass the RH bill, saying its education component would help young people understand human sexuality from a more scientific point of view.
Cayetano, principal sponsor of the RH measure, lamented that anti-RH proponents were bent to block its passage without consideration of the health repercussions that might result from inadequate information on human sexuality.
“They are testing my patience severely whenever I have to explain the RH bill. Education in general empowers the people and does not make them sex maniacs,” she said during the forum.