Text by Henrylito D. Tacio
Photos: iStock and healthline.com
With coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the forefront now, it seems no one talks about the still-incurable human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS).
To think, Davao Region has had a total of 4,513 HIV/AIDS cases since 1993 – the first time the region recorded its first case – up to December 2020.
The figure comes from the Regional Epidemiology and Surveillance Unit (RESU) of the Department of Health (DOH). Of the 4,513 cases, the majority of the cases were from Davao City (3,312). The rest of the cases were from Davao del Norte (556), Davao del Sur (242), Davao de Oro (200), Davao Oriental (141), and Davao Occidental (62).
Since 1993, about 238 people have succumbed to the disease.
In Davao City, the Reproductive Health and Wellness Center (RHWC) is in-charge of the delivery of programs and services for the prevention of HIV/AIDS. But due to the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, its programs and services were greatly affected, including the treatment, care and support to people living with HIV.
Speaking of pandemic, those who are HIV-positive are classified under the A3 priority group in the government’s vaccination program. But for their safety, they need to have medical clearance before they can be vaccinated, as required by the health department.
Despite limited data, available information suggests current WHO (World Health Organization) recommended COVID-19 vaccines – AstraZeneca/Oxford, Johnson and Johnson, Moderna, Pfizer/BionTech, Sinopharm and Sinovac — are safe for people living with HIV.
HIV is the microorganism that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). It was first reported in 1981 in the United States.
“(AIDS) is a syndrome because there are a range of different symptoms which are not always found in each case,” explains Dr. John Hubley, author of The AIDS Handbook: A guide to the understanding of AIDS and HIV.
“It is acquired because AIDS is an infectious disease caused by a virus which is spread from person to person through a variety of routes,” Dr. Hubley says. “This makes it different from immune deficiency from other causes such as treatment with anti-cancer drugs or immune system suppressing drugs given to persons receiving transplant operations.”
In the Philippines, the first case of HIV infection was reported in January 1984.
A patient infected with HIV can have the virus for many years without having any physical symptoms. When the immune system is destroyed by the virus, a person is considered to have AIDS and the weak immune system places him or her at risk of various infections and even cancer.
“Between HIV and AIDS, there is a window period of as much as five years,” Dr. Jordana P. Ramiterre, chief of the Reproductive Health and Wellness Center of the Davao City Health Office, was quoted as saying by Davao media.
“However, the speed HIV progresses will vary depending on age, health and background,” the website of Avert (www.avert.org) points out.
HIV is spread through the exchange of body fluids with high concentration of the virus (viral load) such as cerebral fluid, amniotic fluid, blood, semen, cervical and vaginal secretions, and breastmilk. It can be transmitted through sexual intercourse, blood and blood products, shared needles, and mother-to-child.
Being infected with HIV is no longer a death sentence these days. “HIV is not and should not be a death sentence anymore,” points out Dr. Louie Mar Gangcuangco, who has worked as a researcher at the Hawaii Center for AIDS. “If HIV is detected early and if the patient takes antiretrovirals early, the virus can be controlled.”
However, in order to be treated, you need to know if you have HIV. And you will only find out if you undergo HIV testing. “Testing for HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections is strongly advised for all people exposed to any of the risk factors,” the WHO said in its website. “This way people learn of their own infection status and access necessary prevention and treatment services without delay.”
However, all HIV testing services must follow the 5 principles recommended by WHO: consent (informed), confidentiality, counselling, correct test results, and connection (linkage to care, treatment and other services).
In Davao City, there are three facilities where people can go to be tested for HIV: Southern Philippine Medical Center in Bajada, Davao Doctors Hospital in Quirino Street, and Davao Reproductive Health and Wellness Center in Emilio Jacinto Street. In Tagum City, they can go to Davao Regional Medical Center in Apokon.
“Knowing your HIV status is not just a right but also a responsibility. People with HIV can live normal and productive lives as long as they take their medications and follow-up regularly with your doctor. Getting tested is not only for yourself, but also for your loved ones,” says Dr. Gangcuangco.
Unlike in the past, being HIV positive is no longer a death sentence. “There’s no cure for HIV, but treatment options are much better than they were a few decades ago,” webMd.com says. “Because of medical advancements, many people now live long, active lives with HIV.
“The medicines that treat HIV are called antiretroviral drugs,” the website says. “There are more than two dozen of them, and they fall into six main types. Each drug fights the virus in your body in a slightly different way.”
Research shows that a combination, or so-called “cocktail,” of drugs is the best way to control HIV and lower the chances that the virus becomes resistant to treatment. A doctor can recommend a patient to take three different medicines from two of the groups.
“Which specific ones your doctor prescribes depends on what other medical conditions you have or are likely to get, how well your immune system is working, and even how many pills you want to take each day,” WebMd.com says.
Once an HIV-infected person starts having treatment, he should not stop doing so. “Keep taking your HIV medications,” reiterates WebMd.com. “It’s dangerous to change how you’re taking them – or to stop altogether – if you’re unhappy with how you feel or how they affect you. That can make it easier for the HIV to become resistant to drugs and harder to treat.
“Continuing treatment is the key to not only preventing the development of AIDS, but is key to maintaining a relatively normal lifestyle. It is possible, with the correct treatment, to obtain a normal life expectancy,” the website says.