The new Philippines country director of the United Nations program on HIV/AIDS, known as UNAIDS, is advocating condom use and comprehensive sexuality education as key planks in the agency’s strategy to address the country’s worsening HIV epidemic, the fastest growing in the Asia-Pacific.
This is a desperately needed call to action, but the director, Dr. Louie Ocampo, a 44-year-old Filipino, faces a daunting task. Successive Philippine governments have failed miserably to propagate condom use and educate young Filipinos to avoid HIV transmission. The main hurdle has been the lack of political will to resist the deeply rooted opposition to these measures.
Low condom use has been identified as the main reason why HIV has exploded in the Philippines in the past decade. A 2016 Human Rights Watch report found this to be the result of the lack of a national campaign to promote condom use. Ocampo and UNAIDS will need to convince the government to break down the barriers to low condom access and use, particularly those from the Roman Catholic Church and conservative political leaders.
Providing comprehensive sexuality education, which is already mandated by law, should be enforced as soon and as widely as possible. This is crucial because HIV prevalence is increasing among Filipinos aged 15-24, mostly men and transgender women who have sex with men. The lack of safer sex education and stigma and discrimination because of their sexuality have made these young Filipinos – many of them bullied and abused in school – even more vulnerable. The Philippine government faces other challenges – the spread of HIV among people who inject drugs and in detention facilities as well as the persistence of stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV. But unless the government takes the message of UNAIDS to heart and ensures that condom use and sexuality education is at the core of its HIV prevention strategy, the Philippines’ HIV epidemic is unlikely to abate.