HIV cases in Baguio rise-A A +A
By JM Agreda
Monday, November 4, 2013
HE CELEBRATED his birthday more than a month ago. It was no ordinary birthday. It has been a year after learning he was positive with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
At 17 years old, just starting out in college in Baguio, Eric was already sexually active.
He moved to Manila seven years ago and the independence he got from being away from home made him free to discover night clubs to meet with fellow Men having Sex with Men (MSMs).
Casual and unprotected sex happened after bouts with alcohol at times without even knowing the name of his sexual partner.
“It is a lifestyle then that I embraced which I regret now. This lifestyle is also happening right now in Baguio,” as he called on for more awareness among the MSM population in the city.
He said meet-ups for casual sex among MSMs are common with social networking sites in Baguio.
“Hindi ako takot noon sa HIV eh. Hindi ko naman kasi alam. Lack of education na rin siguro,” he said.
Fast forward to September last year, while studying in Manila, he had cough and colds for more than a month.
“I was high with fever. I told my professor, ‘Sir, tapusin ko lang exam ko gusto ko umuwi sa Baguio’,” he recalled. Then he went home to his parents.
“Pagdating ko dito sa Baguio, nagulat na lang ang parents ko. Iba na pala ang itsura ko at sobrang payat. In a span of three months from 85 kilos my weight went down to 65 kilos,” he related.
He switched from Baguio General Hospital to Benguet General Hospital to seek treatment for high fever. Then after three admissions to the hospital, he was diagnosed with pneumonia.
He was readmitted at BGH where the only treatment facility for People Living with HIV is located in the city. There he was diagnosed to be HIV positive.
Rising HIV cases in Baguio.
Eric’s case is just one among the new HIV cases reported in Baguio city involving MSMs.
Dr. Celia Flor Brillantes of the Baguio Social Hygiene Clinic said their recent survey showed at least eight individuals, all MSMs were reported only this year to be HIV positive.
From two cases of blood donors who were screened last 2012 cases of HIV rose to eight this year, majority discovered during a recent surveillance conducted by the Aids Watch Council.
Out of some 300 individuals randomly tested and screened last May 27 to June 15, she said five MSMs turned out positive with HIV. Two patients were also screened from a private hospital and another one still being confirmed this month.
“The number could rise due to the advocacy we made with our private hospitals to report [to us] HIV positive patients,” she said.
Brillantes said if, indeed, the number of cases turn out to be more than 8 this year, it will be the highest record for HIV cases diagnosed in Baguio in a single year.
She said MSM is a high risk group but the city government must not discount the continued monitoring of commercial sex workers who remain highly vulnerable to contracting the disease.
In the past years, she said the high case of syphilis is already a proxy-indicator of increasing HIV cases in the city as she urged the public to practice Abstinence, Be Safe and Condom-use (ABCs) especially for sexually active individuals.
Risky behaviors among the youth are also a cause of concern among city health workers.
Data from the BGHMC showed 97 HIV positive patients being treated, majority coming from the Cordillera and others from Central Luzon, Ilocos regions and Metro Manila.
The youngest of the patients diagnosed is only 19 years old, the BGHMC data showed.
Of the 97 patients, 16 have already died including an 11 month-old baby. Some 52 patients are now receiving Anti-Retroviral Treatment while some 13 patients are not yet receiving ART as their CD4 counts remain high.
Of the cases at BGHMC, 77 cases are composed of male patients while only 20 patients are female.
Life after turning HIV positive
For Eric, living with HIV is not just about coping with the sickness but a mission to continue life and help eliminate the stigma often attributed to HIV positive individuals.
Going through the stigma is the most painful thing experienced by PLHIVs sharing others patients being treated at the BGHMC experience bouts of depression, suicidal thoughts, abandonment and loneliness after being shunned by their family and friends.
Thankfully, he said, his family is supportive.
Last year, his CD4 count went down to 305 with normal levels at 500 to 100 per average person. He said if he falls below 200 in his CD4 count, he would already be prone to opportunistic infections. His case will then progress to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome or AIDS.
“I realized that life is short to go drinking. Eh that time a few months nong nalaman ko gabi-gabi akong umiinom. I was taking anti-retroviral drugs then at sobrang bumaba ang CD4 count ko,” he said.
But with his positive attitude, together with counseling sessions with Dr. Ma. Lorena Santos, HIV Treatment Hub coordinator at the BGHMC, he decided to use his condition as an advocacy to educate the public of the disease.
“Sabi ko okay doktora ayokong maging pabigat. I want to be of help to this community at hindi lang isa sa mga pabigat,” he said.
He believes his life is more focused now after being diagnosed with HIV.
“I went into business. I was more focused to earn, to survive at nangyari naman. I am also into helping others take the HIV test, counseling other PLHIVs,” he said.
As the local coordinator of the Red Ribbon Project in Baguio and as president of the Baguio PLHIV group, he wants to educate the public of how HIV is ‘fast and furiously’ spreading especially among the youth and MSMs.
Another concern he raised is the unreliability of the free anti-retroviral drugs given by government citing the country remains highly dependent on supply from the Global Fund against HIV.
“Sabi ko nga sa iba, lalo na sa mga may work, save lang tayo ng save kasi hindi natin alam kung hangang kailan ang support,” he said.
Eric also called for the local government to come up with more intensive screening especially for MSM communities in Baguio, being a tourist town and an area where a huge transient population from students in colleges and universities exist.
But all in all, he said, the most important thing is for the local government to have Free HIV testing available and accessible to all residents, not just MSMs.
“MSMs may be a sector that is not given focus because they are the ones without recognized groups, those that are in the closet, as they are the ones that unknowingly are positive,” he said.
And most importantly, to promote education and awareness stressing there is life after HIV and people like him are capable of prolonging their lives with continued anti-retroviral drugs.
“There is life after HIV. A person is in control of their lives after HIV. Don’t be afraid to get tested. There are people who can help,” he stressed.
Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on November 05, 2013.