An HIV-positive Filipino lights candles around an AIDS symbol as he participates in an event in observance of World AIDS Day in Quezon city, Philippines, Dec. 1, 2016.
An HIV-positive Filipino lights candles around an AIDS symbol as he participates in an event in observance of World AIDS Day in Quezon city, Philippines, Dec. 1, 2016.

A human rights watchdog says the Philippines has one of the fastest-growing epidemics of HIV in the Asia Pacific which may worsen unless the government changes its approach and removes barriers to condom use by men who have sex with men.

Human Rights Watch said in a report released Thursday that HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men has increased tenfold in the last five years, but the government has failed to adequately target prevention measures on that population.

It said HIV prevention education in Philippine schools is woefully inadequate, commercial marketing of condoms is nonexistent, and barriers to condom access and HIV testing — particularly those younger than 18 who are required by law to have parental consent — have contributed to the worsening epidemic.

The report said the problems found in national and local government policies are compounded by longstanding resistance of the Roman Catholic Church to contraceptives. More than 80 percent of Filipinos are Catholic.

Alarming increase

The Department of Health said it recorded 38,114 cases of HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, from January 1984 to October 2016 — less than 1 percent of a population of more than 100 million. But the rate of increase has been alarming, with 32,099 of the cases recorded from 2011 to 2016.

Health officials said in 2008 there was only one case being reported each day, but 26 new infections are now recorded daily. The main mode of transmission remains sexual contact at 96 percent, including 87 percent among men who have sex with men. More than half of those infected are 25 to 34 years old and nearly 27 percent are aged 15 to 24.

“The government had a pretty good track record of fighting HIV-AIDS, but basically they are fighting the last war,” Phelim Kine, HRW deputy director for Asia, said in an interview. “They are still focusing on female sex workers and their clients when actually the epidemic has changed, but the government's approach is not changing and it needs to or else this will really get out of control.”

He said while President Rodrigo Duterte has earned criticism for his bloody war on drugs, government action on the HIV problem is “something we can reasonably hope for” given Duterte's expressed support for public health and rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Condoms, testing kits

Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial last week said her department plans to distribute condoms in schools after coordination with the education department and school authorities. She said her office is considering making HIV self-testing kits available to the public.

Carlos Conde, HRW's Philippines researcher, said distributing condoms in schools was important, adding the government needs to overcome expected opposition from the church, Catholic schools, and parents.

The report is based on field research between February and October, and interviews with 82 people across eight cities, including two where officials have prohibited the sale or distribution of condoms and other contraceptives.

The research found that young men who have sex with men have been subjected to ridicule when they buy condoms from drug stores and have faced stigma when they go to social hygiene clinics that provide free condoms to sex workers.

The report recommends the abolition of legal restrictions that bar youths under 18 years of age from buying condoms or getting HIV tests without parental consent, better sex education in schools, and imposing penalties on municipalities that refuse to comply with the laws that guarantee the public distribution of contraceptives, including condoms.