By Joseph B.A. Marzan
The recent rise in cases of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in the region may be attributable to the continued lack of information as well as the persistent problems in access to such information.
POPCOM-Region 6 Director Harold Alfred Marshall stressed this point to journalists on the sidelines of the 2022 Philippine Population and Development Program (PPDP) awards on Friday.
Marshall said that they did take note of the rising HIV figures in the region, but their stance is mainly based on their coordination with the Department of Health (DOH) and their partner civil society organization (CSO) including the Family Planning Organization of the Philippines (FPOP).
But he was also quick to state that the HIV infections have not evolved into acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, AIDS is a chronic, potentially life-threatening condition caused by HIV infections, damaging the immune system and interfering with the body’s ability to fight infection and disease.
“[There is] lack of information of a person on how to protect themselves, or on what exactly are HIV and AIDS. It really is there. Here in Western Visayas, cases of HIV infections have risen, but [not to the level of] full-blown AIDS,” Marshall said.
“The data we have, we get from authorized sources like the DOH, and concurred by our CSO partners. We called HIV before as ‘low and slow’, then ‘hidden and growing’, and now ‘Fast and the Furious’. It [spreads] quickly and swiftly, so we need to give out the correct information so that people can protect themselves,” he added.
Marshall recognized that this also remains as one of their challenges at the POPCOM-6, even as some of their functions have been devolved to local government units (LGUs).
“It’s not easy, especially when you are at your height, and you forget to use protection, or maybe even [to practice] abstinence. I’m talking about just sex and sexual contact, because there are other ways to acquire HIV [and] AIDS. We just need access to information, proper and correct use of condoms, abstinence if it’s possible, and being faithful to your partner. Educate yourself. That is what I can see we need to push,” he said.
He added that they are continuously working not only with national and regional government agencies and CSO partners, but also with the LGUs as they continue to build their own population offices.
He also touted their ‘AHlam Na! 2.0’ mobile app, developed with the Iloilo State University of Fisheries Science and Technology (formerly Iloilo State College of Fisheries) in 2022, which is currently available for mobile phone users with Android operating systems.
“We’re continuously working with all these entities, and we’re also working with media[.] They can get the message out there faster. Currently, [we also have] our advocacy materials on adolescent sexual health,” he stated.
The HIV/AIDS and Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) Registry of the Philippines (HARP) in its December 2022 bulletin reported that Region 6 logged 1,091 diagnosed cases of HIV within 2022 alone.
The region’s figures make up 7 percent of the total number of diagnoses last year, the fourth-highest in the country.
It was also recently reported, citing the DOH central office’s data, that there were 91 HIV cases diagnosed in the region in January 2023.
The 2022 PPDP Awards, presented by the POPCOM-6 on Friday in Iloilo City, honored the LGUs’ and CSOs’ performance in promoting and implementing the devolved and localized functions under the PPDP which were once spearheaded by the agency.
The devolution of these functions was in accordance with the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Mandanas vs. Executive Secretary in 2018, as well as Executive Order No. 138 issued by then-President Rodrigo Duterte in June 2021 to implement the effects of this ruling.
Population offices and officers were designated in accordance with the said Executive Order, and received the functions of the POPCOM in addition to their increased budgets under the National Tax Allotment.
The LGU awardees include the provincial governments of Antique and Capiz, the city LGUs of Bacolod and Bago, Cadiz, Sagay, and Talisay in Negros Occidental, and the town LGUs of Malay in Aklan, Maayon and Pontevedra in Capiz, and Anilao and Batad in Iloilo province.
Some of the requirements set by the commission for the honors include the presence of a local population office structure, policy and advocacy support, allocation of budget to their respective Population and Development Programs, and program accomplishments.
The Antique provincial government won the top prize under the Adolescent Health and Development Program for reaching out to 10,316 adolescents, followed by the cities of Talisay (5,039 adolescents reached) and Victorias (3,646 adolescents reached) in Negros Occidental.
Iloilo City and Lambunao and Dueñas towns in Iloilo province, Libertad in Antique, and Sagay City in Negros Occidental were also honored for their recent winning entries in the 2022 National Kaunlarang Pantao Awards.
Marshall noted that with the localization of the population programs under the PPDP and the devolution orders, some of the honored LGUs stood out with their compliance with the program.
“This is a simple recognition of the LGUs and the national government agencies who are here, including the NEDA, DILG, DOH, and NCIP, and our CSOs who keep helping us to lighten our load and promote our population programs including FPOP and JCI Iloilo Ilang-Ilang,” he said.
“In their implementation of localized population programs, the total fertility rate among women improved. Before the average number of children per woman [in Western Visayas] was at 3.8, now it is down to 3. We still want to lower this number to their desired number of children,” he added.
Marshall added that they are still aiming to lower the regional fertility rate to 2, citing their own survey among women in the region.
“There is an unmet need for family planning, and this is among women who we need to look out for, so we can respond to the lack of family planning which is what they would want. Why would they not use these? Is there a lack of information? Is there no supply?” he remarked.
Despite the honorable performance of the LGUs, he also emphasized that their limited budget continues to be the biggest challenge amid the NTA increases since the Mandanas ruling was fully implemented starting in 2022.
He also inferred that some local chief executives in the region may lack information as to how family planning worked, beyond birth control measures and equipment.
“The position of a municipal or city population officer may not be a priority of an LGU, because sometimes there may be [greater] priority positions, like a Municipal Health Officer but there are LGUs who find it difficult to hire a [medical] doctor because they lack the budget,” he stated.
“We also have local chief executives who still have doubts in implementing family planning, maybe because of their [personal] beliefs, if they are anti-family planning. We need to make them understand. Population programs are not just pills [and] condoms. It’s also about responsible adolescent sexuality, [and] helping LGUs coming up with more responsive plans for their people. [T]he business of the government, whether it is national or local, is helping improve people’s lives,” he added.