Philippine lawmakers finally took action this week to improve the government’s response to the country’s HIV epidemic, filing a draft law to replace the Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998.
Senate Bill 1390, if enacted, aims to improve access to HIV prevention services, including sex education and HIV testing, and to ensure better access to health and support services. It lowers the age – from 18 to 15 – that children can get tested without parental consent. It allows children under 15 to get tested with just the consent of a social worker. It also prohibits health insurers from denying coverage to people living with HIV.
The bill aims to counter an alarming reality: The Philippines has one of the highest rates of new HIV infections in Asia. According to Department of Health data, as many as 27 Filipinos – mostly people under 24 – contract the virus every day. “This emergency situation needs an emergency response,” said Senator Risa Hontiveros, one of the bill’s authors.
In a December report, Human Rights Watch criticized the government for not taking effective steps to reduce infection rates among men who have sex with men, the group with the most new infections. It said the government had failed to make condoms available to these men and should help them access health services. It should also help them fight stigma and discrimination.
The bill’s major flaw is its lack of specificity about the crucial role of condoms in HIV prevention. Lawmakers should address this by directing the Department of Health to improve condom access, particularly among men who have sex with men. Doing so would help push back conservative lawmakers who hope to prevent promotion of condom use as part of safer sex education. It will also counter the recent decision by the Departments of Health and of Education to withdraw a proposal to make condoms accessible to high school students.
Senate Bill 1390 would be a major step for official efforts to control the HIV epidemic. Now it’s up to Philippine legislators to see the wisdom of a better official response to the HIV epidemic and to pass a version of the bill including provisions on condom use.