A high 327% surge in new infections and a staggering 401% increase in AIDS-related deaths across all age groups in the Philippines from 2010 to 2021 were recorded, based on the data from the 2022 Global AIDS Monitoring Report.
In commemoration of the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial, Unicef has emphasized the pressing need to address the unique requirements of adolescents in preventing HIV infections and promoting sexual health.
Historical records spanning from 1984 to 2023 highlight that young people aged 15 to 24 account for 21% or 635 of the AIDS-related deaths in the country. Moreover, this age group represents nearly 30% of all reported infections during this period, with a staggering 98% of transmissions occurring through sexual contact.
In the 2022 Integrated HIV Behavioral and Serological Survey, a majority of respondents reported initiating sexual activity at 16 and engaging in anal sex at 17, but alarmingly, condoms were not consistently used until the age of 19.
“Adolescence is a unique stage of life which brings great opportunities for growth and development. While children are experiencing this transformation, let’s help build their resilience, skills, and social-emotional competencies required for a healthy and productive adult life,” said Unicef Philippines Representative Oyunsaikhan Dendevnorov.
The Department of Health (DOH) has made significant strides in the HIV and AIDS response by implementing preventive measures such as Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PreP) and decentralized HIV testing through self-testing kits. However, to effectively address the growing demands, these interventions need to be swiftly scaled up.
While the DOH has already adopted new antiretroviral medications that enhance treatment outcomes and compliance, persistent challenges in procurement and supply hinder the accessibility of these life-saving drugs for all People Living with HIV (PLHIV).
Unicef has been at the forefront of advocating for the proxy consent protocol, enabling young people to undergo HIV testing without parental consent. This crucial development has led to a remarkable 78% increase in reported cases among 15- to 17-year-olds to the HIV/AIDS & ART Registry of the Philippines between 2019 and 2023.
Providing unrestricted access to testing offers lifesaving opportunities as immediate enrollment in treatment and proper care can be facilitated.
However, despite the lowering of the age for testing without parental consent to 15, other essential services such as treatment still require parental consent. This disparity has potentially hindered other young people living with HIV from seeking the necessary treatment they require.
The Philippines’ AIDS medium-term plan needs to explicitly outline how it will address age and development-appropriate issues, ensure gender-responsive information dissemination, and enhance access to and uptake of services.
Unicef and UNAIDS are working closely with the Committee on Children on HIV and AIDS, the Council for the Welfare of Children, and the Philippine National AIDS Council to engage young people in developing a program that is responsive to their specific needs.
“At this age with advanced treatment regimen, no one should die from AIDS-related causes. Despite the availability of free access to HIV services including life-saving medicines, many people living with HIV particularly young people are not on treatment or initiated very late. These deaths are unacceptable,” UNAIDS Country Director, Dr. Louie Ocampo said.
“We call on the government to test more and treat more,” Ocampo said, emphasizing the need to eliminate access barriers, stigma, and discrimination.
Ocampo said it is crucial to institutionalize comprehensive sexuality education, expand innovative approaches for reaching key populations, increase investments in prevention and social support services, and demonstrate unwavering political will to protect the most vulnerable and stigmatized sectors.
“This commemoration serves as a wake-up call that our current efforts are insufficient, and it is imperative that we unite and persistently combat the HIV epidemic in our country,” he said.