It all started with chickenpox-like rashes. When his right hand got all swollen with blisters and he could no longer work, “Arthur,” an undocumented Filipino worker in a factory in South Korea, went to see a doctor.
“I didn’t remit my salary to my family in Manila. I spent it all for medication. After a month, the blisters dried up, but the stabbing pain in my hand remained,” says Arthur.
Four months later, after attending Mass at a Catholic church in Korea, he underwent counseling and HIV-testing.
“The following week, they gave me a note inside a small envelope. It read ‘reactive.’ That meant I was HIV-positive,” he says.
Arthur didn’t have any steady relationship at the time. He says he wasn’t also into casual dating or serial one-night stands.
“It was just one-time sex with a Korean man, maybe out of loneliness, which I now regret,” he says.
That was several years ago. Arthur has since came back to the Philippines, and joined a volunteer group helping people living with HIV/AIDS.
With the count of his CD4 cells plummeting to 85, Arthur’s condition worsened into AIDS.
“I lost weight. I contracted [tuberculosis]. My herpes zoster got worse that even combing my hair became painful,” he says.
CD4 or T-cells are responsible for activating the body’s immune response to viruses or bacteria. A healthy person’s CD4 count ranges from 500 to 1,000 cells per cubic millimeter of blood. A person is diagnosed with AIDS if his or her CD4 count drops below 200.
Arthur says AIDS taught him life’s precious lessons in a hard way.
“I’m about to be a senior citizen and the lessons came rather late. AIDS taught me to love and respect myself and make prayers my weapon,” he says.
“Vices, stress, and lack of sleep are a no-no if a person with AIDS wants to live longer,” Arthur adds.
But while Arthur tries to have a healthier lifestyle, he observes that other people, especially young people, who also have the dreaded disease, make their conditions worse by sticking to the ways they had when they didn’t yet have AIDS.
“It’s a pity, they’re still young and could still manage to live longer even if they have AIDS. But with their ways, they seem to wish for death to come soon,” says Arthur.
Among them is “Jack,” a 28-year-old former employee of a multinational company holding office in Makati City, the Philippines’ central business district.
Arthur met Jack when the latter got jobless and sought help from the Arthur’s volunteer group.
Arthur describes Jack as a very intelligent person. “He graduated from a prestigious school. He looked and talked very smart. But his mother disowned him even before he was diagnosed as HIV-positive.”
Instead of buying medicine or nutritious food, Jack would spend most of the donations he received for late-night parties with friends.
“Jack used to live in comfort. He found it difficult to outgrow his lifestyle,” says Arthur.
Two of Jack’s friends, who also had AIDS, died at the San Lazaro Hospital in Manila. They were also in their 20s. Blood transfusion proved useless for Jack’s friends as they were diagnosed late.
There’s also the case of “Norman,” another young adult, who has become a spokesperson for people living with HIV/AIDS. Like Jack, Arthur met Norman through the same volunteer group.
Norman is often invited in forums that tackle the HIV/AIDS problem. Most of the time, he receives an honorarium of US$35 to US$50 for every hour of speaking. But Arthur says Norman can’t stop taking drugs.
“That’s how he got the disease, by taking drugs and having multiple partners. He now gives lessons as a spokesperson, but the truth is, he has not yet learned from his own teachings,” says Arthur.
Study finds HIV/AIDS awareness love
A study done by the UP Population Institute reveals that the percentage of Filipino youth aware of HIV and AIDS has declined to its lowest level since 1994.
In a statement this week, the institute says that based on its 2021 Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Study, 76 percent of young Filipinos aged 15- 24 have heard of HIV and/or AIDS, a 19-percentage point drop from 1994 when awareness stood at 95 percent.
Data from the Department of Health show that there were a total of 115,100 people living with HIV in the country in 2020, and 90 percent of the new infections were recorded among young males who have sex with males.
The number of HIV cases is estimated to reach over 330,000 by 2030 if the numbers continue.
“This sustains the decrease observed in 2013, when the share of youth who have heard of HIV and/or AIDS declined to 83 percent from 95 percent in 2002,” read the media statement from the UP Population Institute.
“Information gaps can stall efforts to arrest the number of HIV infections in the Philippines, which has the fastest-growing HIV epidemic in the Asia-Pacific region,” it adds.
Latest available data from the DOH’s Epidemiology Bureau under the HIV/AIDS and ART Registry of the Philippines also show that there were 12,859 reported HIV cases from January to October 2022.
The study also found that among those who have heard of HIV and/or AIDS, only 19 percent or one in five youth has comprehensive knowledge of HIV.
The percentage significantly changed among women, to 19 percent in 2021 from 16 percent in 2013, but not among men, which only slightly changed to 19 percent in 2021 from 18 percent in 2013.
More than half or 52 percent of youth incorrectly believed that a person can get HIV by sharing food with someone who is infected. About two in five, on the other hand, did not believe that a healthy-looking person can have HIV.
About 35 percent of young people also did not believe that a person can reduce the risk of getting HIV infection by using a condom during sex, contrary to multiple evidence that consistent condom use is very effective against HIV transmission.
While Arthur struggles with his debilitating disease, he worries more about the fate of young AIDS HIV/AIDS carriers.
He says it’s not the disease that kills them. “It’s the lack of faith, of believing in one’s self to change and improve things that make them surrender.” – with a report from Mercedes L. Tuazon