If there was anything one could say about the Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998, it is that this law needed amending—especially in terms of protecting the privacy of persons living with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infections, and improving support for these people in terms of specialized health care and services.
What the law passed by the Tenth Congress did right was improve awareness of the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) epidemic, as well as how this still-incurable disease attacks the body and how it can be prevented.
So the 17th Congress created House Bill 3146 and Senate Bill 1390 to amend Republic Act 8504. The Senate’s bill of amendments recently passed on third and final reading, preparatory to the bicameral conference that will, finally, amend RA 8504—and this is a welcome development.
As this unfolded, the Department of Health (DOH) reported that 11,103 new cases were recorded in 2017, up 19.85% from the 9,264 cases in 2016. The HIV infection rate in the Philippines is the highest in Southeast Asia.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has criticized SB 1390 for not providing for the promotion of condom use as a preventive measure against HIV transmission.
However, that bill defines “safer sex practices” as practices that include “postponing sexual debut, non-penetrative sex, correct and consistent use of male and female condoms, and reducing the number of sexual partners.” (underscoring supplied)
It is simply sad to note that the President himself has discouraged the use of condoms, giving the reason that sex is not as pleasurable when condoms are used. It is unfortunate that the predominantly Catholic values embraced by majority of Filipinos and pro-life groups frown on condom use.
Condoms, of both the male and female types, are the best barriers to HIV transmission, according to the World Health Organization. Consistent and correct condom use has been a very pivotal factor in the drop in HIV transmissions around the world.
The Philippines would be well served by a strong campaign encouraging the use of condoms and other safe sex practices that will help stem the spread of sexually-transmitted infections—including the spread of HIV.
After all, Death does not subscribe to any single religion, nor does it discriminate between heterosexuals or people who fall under the rainbow of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, pansexual (LGBTQIA) people who are definitely not heterosexual.
Diseases do not care what a person believes in, or how they see themselves. They don’t care what color your skin is, or by what name you call God—they don’t even care if you believe in God. They just infect you, use your body as a host, spread to others and, where they are not stopped or stoppable, they kill you.
The first line of defense in preventing HIV/AIDS transmissions is abstinence. The second is consistent and correct condom use. HRW is correct in pushing for greater promotion of consistent and correct condom use—even if it isn’t correct in saying that the proposed amendments to the 1998 AIDS law do not provide for the same.
SB 1309 provides that, “[u]nless otherwise provided in this Act, the confidentiality, anonymity, and non-compulsory nature of HIV testing and HIV-related testing shall always be guaranteed and protected by the State.”
This bill also states that “[p]olicies and practices that discriminate on the basis of perceived or actual HIV status, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, economic status, disability, and ethnicity hamper the enjoyment of basic human rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and are deemed inimical to the national interest. Toward this end, the State shall ensure the delivery of non-discriminatory HIV and AIDS service providers and develop redress mechanisms for persons living with HIV to ensure that their civil, political, economic, and social rights are protected.”
These provisions cover areas that the 1998 AIDS law was not specific about. The Senate’s proposed amendments to RA 8504 also protects the privacy and rights of individuals living with HIV/AIDS by ensuring that HIV testing be kept voluntary, ensuring the privacy of individuals’ HIV status, and making it clear that there should be no discrimination against persons infected with HIV in the workplace: You cannot refuse to hire, or act to fire, a person living with HIV on the basis of their status as persons infected with the AIDS virus.
This proposed amendment also specifies support services, government agencies and structures, as well as designates funding for these to provide better morbidity monitoring, specialized health care support services and counseling for persons living with HIV.
It also provides both funding and systems for strengthening education campaigns to empower the people to prevent the spread of HIV in the Philippines.
SB 1309 also aims high by bringing more than simply the DOH and its attached agencies into the fight against AIDS: It also engages several departments, including the Department of Tourism, in providing support for efforts to eradicate AIDS and assist persons living with HIV—including those who are visitors to the Philippines.
It takes aim at the social problems, like poverty and lack of access to government services, lack of means to afford health care and lack of education to attack and defeat the underlying complications of the AIDS epidemic in the Philippines.
All told, the proposed changes to RA 8504 do strengthen the AIDS law. May its strengths be maintained in the bicameral conference and, if possible, increased with provisions for better education campaigns promoting consistent and correct condom use.