HIV among gay men in the Philippines is spreading rapidly, but in an age when the virus is a manageable disease the tragedy is that many are getting sick and dying before taking the test because they fear the stigma.
‘It used to be that the friend of a friend of a friend that would catch it but now it’s friends,’ says writer and academic J. Neil C. Garcia. ‘And they’re just dying. The stigma is so bad they don’t even consult with doctors even if they are getting sick all the time.’
And the virulent opportunistic infections in the less than anti-septic Philippines means the mortality rate is alarmingly high. ‘If your immune system is down, you will die. It’s really horrible,’ says Garcia.
Eighteen-months ago a group of gay men decided to do something themselves to stop the tragically preventable deaths of their friends. They called their group Love Yourself, as a marked contrast to the terrifying threats of ‘get a test or you will die’ government campaigns.
For their first testing, the eight organizers of Love Yourself flexed their considerable social media muscle and got a lot of people along. ‘Immediately the government took notice that we can really mobilize people. So from then on we’ve worked together regularly,’ says Ian Felix Alquiros , vice president of Love Yourself.
Government agencies have also noticed that Love Yourself are much better than they are at getting those who test positive to turn-up for treatment. ‘Normally the fallout – the people who test positive but do not go for treatment – is about 20-30% but for us it’s only 6%,’ says Alquiros.
Love Yourself have been so successful at getting HIV positive people to recieve life-saving treatment because their volunteer counsellors form a relationship with their clients. They are peers so they understand their concerns and they are also happy to talk on the phone any time, and to meet them out of office hours.
‘We can identify with the person,’ says Alquiros. ‘We are committed to make sure we see the person, we talk to the person, we even bring them personally to the treatment hub.’
Love Yourself now boasts 150 active volunteers, around 80 of whom have been trained counsellors and educators.
At a recent testing event in Makati, the main business area of Manila, Love Yourself harnessed contributions from private healthcare, public healthcare and business to get nearly 200 men to come and take the test, and learn about protecting yourself from HIV. Private healthcare clinic MediCard Lifestyle Center provide the clinic after-hours, government healthcare provided nurses and doctors to administer the tests and Love Yourself even secured sponsorship from local food outlet Chicken Charlie who provided free food.
The event was so successful because Love Yourself really made it as convenient and as comfortable as possible. The location in the main business area is ideal for young professionals after work and the atmosphere is more fun and relaxed than government testing centers.
‘There are two ways that we help,’ says Chris Lagman, coach and educator with Love Yourself. ‘One is bringing these services closer to them distance-wise. But we also want it to be closer to them emotionally. If you see people who are like you then you will feel more comfortable.’
At the session last Friday 174 men took the test and 22 tested positive. That number will contribute to the figures released each month from the National Epidemiology Center, which reports around 300 new cases a month, but the numbers are growing.
The monthly release of ever-growing numbers of HIV positive people in the Philippines,
which are widely reported in the news, do not help to reduce the fear and stigma around the virus. And the volunteers at Love Yourself realize that before it gets better, it’s going to get a lot worse. The better they do their job, the more the numbers will go up.
‘When the numbers go up every month most people’s reaction is "oh my god, it’s an epidemic, oh my god!",’ says Lagman. ‘But for us it’s "oh great" because people now know their status. They won’t just die without knowing or without going for treatment.’
Alquiros is similarly realistic about the job at hand. ‘Based on the statistics, now there’s around 10,300 people living with HIV the Philippines,’ he says. ‘We expect that within the next two to three years, it’s going to grow to around 45,000.
‘In ten years, that’s when we’ll see the effect of what we’re doing now. It’s a tough job but somebody has to do it and we’re very happy to.’