HIV tagged a public threat as cases rise daily, DOH says

ByClaudeth Mocon-Ciriaco

WHILE the country is combating the Covid-19 pandemic, the Department of Health (DOH) assured the public that the agency “remains focused and resolute” in its mandate of preventing and reducing transmission of HIV as 21 new cases are being reported every day.

According to the Department of Health (DOH)  HIV/AIDS and ART Registry of the Philippines (HARP), there are a total of 81,169 HIV and AIDS cases reported from January 1984 to October 2020. 

In October 2020, there were a total of 735 confirmed HIV-positive individuals, 96 percent (704) of whom were male.

Among the total number of  81,169 diagnosed cases from January 1984 to October 2020, 94 percent (76,216) were male and more than half (51 percent, 41,163) were 25-34 years old at the time of diagnosis.

The regions with the most number of reported cases were the National Capital Region (NCR) with 30,622 cases (38 percent), Calabarzon with 12,467 (15 percent), Central Luzon with 8,005 (10 percent), Central Visayas with 6,827 (eight percent), and Davao Region with 4,477 (six percent).

Continued collaboration

Health Secretary Francisco T. Duque III said that the 21 cases diagnosed daily in the country is a public health threat which needs the continued cooperation and collaboration of all local communities, civil society organizations, key populations at-risk and the whole of government.

“Despite the presence of the Covid-19 pandemic, we should all remain focused and resolute in our mandate of preventing and reducing transmission,” Duque said.

The health chief stressed that the government wil continue to provide quality HIV and AIDS-related services that are readily available including addressing conditions that aggravate the spread of HIV infection like poverty, gender inequality, marginalization and ignorance.

Delayed visits

Gilead Sciences, Inc. and the Sustained Health Initiatives of the Philippines (SHIP) announced the results of a a pulse survey conducted to evaluate the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the access and delivery of HIV care, which includes testing, treatment and prevention, in Asia-Pacific. 

The results show that more than 90 percent of people living with HIV as well as individuals at-risk in the Philippines reduced or delayed their visits to HIV clinics during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Moreover, eight in 10 Filipino respondents were concerned about their long-term ability to access antiretroviral medications, one of the highest percentages amongst all respondents in the Asia-Pacific region.

With the latest and highest HIV infection rates in the region, the disruption caused by the pandemic can set back efforts in trying to reduce this incidence rate. 

The Philippines is one of 10 countries and territories in Asia-Pacific involved in the survey. A total of 1,265 respondents, including people living with HIV (PLHIV), individuals at-risk, and HIV care prescribers, were interviewed from the region; 153 of these respondents were from the Philippines. 

An analysis into the responses in the survey provided additional insights into the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic: 

Covid-19 has had the most severe impact on HIV testing in the Philippines. The Philippines reported the highest decline in the frequency of testing across all respondent groups in the region. Access to testing was reported to be most disrupted among individuals at-risk, with 64 percent of them reporting a decrease in frequency of testing. Travel restrictions (68 percent) and concerns of getting infected at point-of-care (68 percent) were the main reasons for the change in behavior. The DOH previously raised concerns over the lack of HIV testing in the country due to quarantine restrictions and travel constraints. Newly diagnosed cases in the Philippines dropped by 68 percent in the second quarter of the year compared to last year, but the DOH’s epidemiology bureau noted that there has been limited access to HIV services since March.  

Covid-19 has also disrupted preventive care. More than half of at-risk respondents in the Philippines have reported that they had either decreased or stopped their intake of preventive medications, with 100 percent of them citing travel restrictions as the cause for the disruption. 

Dr. Kate Leyritana of the Sustained Health Initiatives of the Philippines (SHIP) shared that proper routine testing as well as preventive care are important for affected populations to manage their health to avoid higher risk of health complications. 

“As such, it is crucial for us to find new ways to provide support and access to adequate HIV care when they experience such constraints,” Dr. Leyritana said.

She added that the increased adoption of telehealth services observed during the pandemic is one such mode of care delivery and “we believe that telehealth can bridge the gap in the access to HIV care in the long-term.”

As the survey results suggest, there was an uptake of telehealth services with 70 percent of the PLHIV and individuals at-risk in the Philippines saying that they utilize telehealth services to receive care, and expect to be using telehealth in the future for video consultation (45 percent) and refill of medications (32.5 percent).

“This pulse survey shows that ensuring access to critical HIV care services is an important public health priority especially when an end in sight to the pandemic remains uncertain. Gilead is committed to collaborating with the HIV community from public health authorities to HIV care prescribers, patient groups and civil societies in the Philippines and across the region to identify strategies that can close the gaps to care delivery to ensure the continuity of vital HIV care services during these challenging times and beyond,” said Boon-Leong Neo, Senior Director, Medical Affairs, Gilead Sciences, Asia-Pacific.