New strain, stigma continue to pose challenges in HIV prevention

Aleta Nieva-Nishimori, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 25 2019 03:17 PM

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MANILA - An epidemiologist on Friday said awareness of the risks, the right care and treatment of HIV/AIDS could help save lives especially now that they are seeing a change in the strain of the virus.

"We can keep people alive even if they have HIV as long as they stay on meds for a very long time. If you're on treatment and your viral load is suppressed, you cannot give anyone HIV," said Dr. Edsel Maurice Salvaña of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the National Institute of Health at the University of the Philippines.

Salvaña said the new strain, subtype AE, may progress to AIDS faster based on initial studies.

"We used to have something called Subtype B which is found more in the United States and now we have a hybrid type virus which is more common in Thailand and we think that may have contributed to the rising cases and also the transmissibility of the virus," he said.

Salvaña said subtype B takes 10 years to develop into full-blown AIDS. In the case of the hybrid virus, it only takes about 3 to 5 years. 

They are likewise studying cases where this type of virus develops "unusually higher rates of development of drug resistance depending on what you use in terms of antiretrovirals."

"Based on our studies, at the end of one year, we're seeing more resistance to some of the medication compared to the old subtype," he said.

A new study by the joint United Nations Program on HIV-AIDS showed that between 2010 and 2018, the number of HIV cases in the Philippines increased by at least 200%, the fastest in the world where the growth average was only 18%. 

"In terms of number of HIV cases it’s very small (from the region). We said 68,000 cases since 1984 and Thailand has a million cases. We just got lucky, that's what it is," he said.

Salvaña said around 68,000 HIV cases have been recorded since 1984, based on the latest report of the Department of Health. But the number, he said, is still small in contrast to the millions of cases in the United States and Thailand.

"But what is alarming is the rate by which the cases are growing. About 10, 11 years ago we only had 1 case a day, and now we're at 35 cases a day. That's a tremendous increase in just the last 10 years," he said.

Despite awareness campaigns, he said there is still a tremendous amount of stigma in the Philippines and in the world that makes people more reluctant to avail of testing and treatment.

"Here in the Philippines, if you want to test someone for HIV, they're going to bring out this really long form and say we're going to test you for HIV but you have to fill out this form and they start asking you about your sexual history and a lot of people don't like that," he said.

He said many community-based organizations are realizing the need for a not too intrusive, less stigma-inducing screening like the one being done by the group Love Yourself.

"They're increasing. There's a new phenomenon but I think that with the advances in HIV where we know that we can save lives and interrupt transmission bigger society in the Philippines has really recognized the fact that if we can diagnose as many people as we can then we're really saving lives and we're preventing transmission," he said.

He likewise reminded people to use condoms and be aware of safe sex practices.

"People have to use protection and they need to be aware that HIV is on the rise in the Philippines, it’s the fastest growing epidemic in the world and so they have to protect themselves," he said.

He added that HIV is not a death sentence.

"You can get your life back and you can even have babies the normal way if you are virally suppressed cause you don't risk your partner or your child from HIV," he said.