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1st Bicol Regional HIV/AIDS and Sexual and Reproductive Health Summit calls for urgent and massive response to HIV through education prevention, screening, and community-led initiatives.

by Kevin de Vera

Legazpi City. December 2, 2023

The Bicol Regional Summit on HIV/AIDS and Sexual and Reproductive Health was such an exciting event! It was the first-ever summit in the region dedicated to empowering communities to take the lead in the fight against HIV and AIDS. During the World AIDS Day, an international day dedicated to raising awareness of the HIV/AIDS pandemic – it took place on December 1, 2023, at La Roca Veranda Suites in Legazpi City, and it was all in celebration of World AIDS Day.

The theme of the summit was "Empowering Communities to Lead in the HIV and AIDS Response." Gentleman Bicol, along with dedicated long-time partners like The Forum for Family Planning and Development, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, DOH - Bicol Center for Health and Development, and the support of Y-PEER Pilipinas, Pilipinas Shell Foundation, PROTECTS, and PNGOC, made this event happen.

The summit had a big mission – to bring together people from all over the Bicol Region to chat about new and creative ways to deliver HIV/AIDS and Sexual and Reproductive Health programs and services. The goal? To get everyone more aware and engaged in supporting comprehensive programs for HIV/AIDS and Sexual and Reproductive Health. Who was there? Regional and Local Government Agencies, Medical Health Allied Students, and the incredible CSOs and NGOs partners all working together for this important cause.

The summit calls for the importance of testing, noting the significant reduction in diagnosis time from months to days.. Mr. Samuel David Banico, the representative from DOH-BCHD, brought attention to a stark reality during the summit. He emphasized a staggering 327% surge in newly reported cases of infection in the Asia-Pacific region, spanning the years 2010 to 2021.

What's even more concerning is the projection for 2030, foreseeing a substantial increase to 401,700 cases. This is double the estimated number for 2023. Shockingly, nearly half of these cases are expected to impact the 15-24 age group, painting a worrisome picture for the future.

The meeting also urged for community actions. HIV awareness and prevention initiatives are crucial and should start at home and within families for several compelling reasons. First and foremost, the family is the fundamental unit of society, and fostering open communication about HIV within this close-knit environment helps create a supportive atmosphere.

Jessa Miann Loterino, representing the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) Region 5 emphasized the important of ensuring homes as a safe space for this kind of discussions. "Comfort and security will help them access the services and treatments." Acknowledging the collaborative aspect of combating the epidemic, "...we represent not just ourselves, but our entire community," she added. Family members can share accurate information, dispel myths, and promote a culture of understanding, reducing the stigma associated with HIV.

Mx. Darwin Tenoria, of Philippine Shell Foundation, shared that from 2010-2018, the Philippines experienced a 203% growth in HIV cases, making it the fastest-growing HIV epidemic globally, with 50 new cases daily, emphasizing that "97% belong to the work age group." Hence, he underscored the need to humanize the issue to better comprehend policies and programs.

In a detailed exploration of the effects of HIV/AIDS on individuals and workplaces, Tenoria painted a vivid picture of the far-reaching consequences and meticulously outlined the repercussions, which include not only physical challenges like illness and disability but also profound mental health struggles, coupled with the burden of exorbitant medical expenses. A striking statement emphasized that those with HIV face mental health problems at a rate three times higher than the general population.

Turning attention to the workplace, the impacts unfolded like a narrative of challenges: a loss of manpower, an upsurge in absenteeism, premature retirements, escalating medical costs, and a surge in health insurance expenditures. The darker side of the story revealed instances of stigmatization and discrimination, casting shadows on the professional lives of individuals affected by HIV.

With a discerning eye, identified stigma and discrimination as the very roots of the HIV epidemic. Citing a poignant 2019 report, Tenoria revealed that a staggering 36% of discrimination originated from healthcare providers, underscoring the urgency of recognizing and upholding the right of every individual to live with dignity.

The summit also calls to the attention of the academic institutions and the Department of Education to full integrate sexual and reproductive health, and HIV education, comprehensively, in school curriculum. Kevin De Vera of The Forum for Family Planning emphasized the life-saving potential of sex education in empowering youth to make informed decisions. He highlighted " education goes beyond HIV, offering crucial information for decision-making". De Vera stressed "...the early onset of risky behaviors among youth, while they lack the knowledge about HIV transmission and access to services put them in a riskier position".

Moving forward, the Y-PEER Pilipinas representatives, Angelo Ortiz and Ralph Ivan, highlighted advocating adolescent and youth involvement in planning and monitoring. They stressed the importance of investing in youth to prevent teenage pregnancy and HIV. Emphasizing the need for youth leadership in community interventions, they highlighted the transformative impact on young lives and health. They underscored the necessity for facilities catering to all age groups and emphasized the importance of stigma-free, accessible services, including safe spaces for children at health facilities.

GM Bicol for SRHR, Inc. through its Secretary General Mr. Gerardo Evan pointed out its commitment to continue on achieving and delivering its health and development mission for the Bicolano community. "Our community-based group is steadfastly committed to advancing sexual health and HIV prevention". Through collaboration, education, and outreach, GM Bicol strive to empower individuals and foster a supportive environment that prioritizes informed choices, reduces stigma, and ensures the well-being of our community. "Together, we work towards a future where everyone has access to comprehensive sexual health resources and where HIV prevention is a shared responsibility within our community," he added.

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