The Philippines Holds First Annual National HIV Testing Week
In an effort to destigmatize and promote HIV testing, the Philippines held its first annual National HIV Testing Week, May 11–15. Nationwide, the testing rate among key populations—including men who have sex with men (MSM), transgender individuals, people who inject drugs, and sex workers—is less than 20%, according to Dr. Rossana A. Ditangco, head of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine’s AIDS Research Group in Manila, who helped organize the campaign, which was supported in part by ABS-CBN Publishing, Inc., and Metro Society magazine.
“I think a low level of awareness and knowledge about HIV testing combined with the stigma attached to HIV have all contributed to low HIV testing rates in the country,” says Dr. Ditangco. “I hope these issues will be addressed by the National HIV Testing Week campaign and that testing rates in the country will improve.”
A campaign poster promoting National HIV Testing Week. The Philippines is one of only nine countries where the HIV rate has increased by more than 25% since 2001, according to UNAIDS—and the rising rate shows no sign of falling or even stabilizing. This February, more people were diagnosed with HIV than in any single month since the nation began reporting cases in 1984. Approximately 85% of the diagnoses were among MSM, and the majority of those were among young MSM aged 15–24.
In the weeks leading up to the event, the campaign sponsored television and billboard ads. During the week itself, select public hospitals and clinics offered free HIV testing, which patients usually must pay to receive. The Department of Health also distributed free testing kits to local health departments and encouraged local governments and private sector organizations and companies to host their own events to promote testing. The week leads up to the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial on May 17, and the Department of Health is also asking that all Candlelight Memorial activities in the country aim to promote testing.
“Fear of stigma and discrimination is the main reason people across the region are not coming forward for testing,” says Dr. Annette Sohn, director of TREAT Asia and amfAR vice president. “Activities like the testing week campaign help to raise awareness at the community level and remind us that we must take aggressive action if we are to see HIV infection rates in the Philippines go down.”