By Arpee Lazaro
The answer to that is a resounding “yes.” People living with HIV (PLHIV) or those who are HIV positive are considered to be persons with disabilities.
However, many of our PLHIV in the Philippines are struggling with several issues that prevent them from having access to their privileges as PWDs. One such issue is the stigma attached to the medical condition itself. To most people, HIV is often wrongly believed to be abnormally contagious and can be contracted by basic human interaction like touching or using the same lavatory. From this stigma comes discrimination and the lack of sympathy for HIV sufferers. Instead of compassion, PLHIVs are met with disdain and contempt.
As of 2017, the Department of Health reports that there are approximately 47,000 reported cases of HIV infections in the Philippines, 37 percent of which is concentrated in the National Capital Region. This is in contrast with the statistics of the World Health Organization that stated that in 2016, HIV infections in the Philippines may have already reached 52,000.
Regardless of the actual number of reported cases, the stark reality is that the number of HIV infections continues to rise, up to 140 percent in the Philippines by 2017. In fact, the Philippines has been known to have registered the fastest-growing HIV/AIDS infection rate in the entire Asia Pacific region. Note that having the fastest-growing number of infections does not necessarily mean that we have the most number of cases. On the contrary, we are in the bottom five Asian countries that have citizens infected with HIV.
Will HIV give you a disability? That depends. Most of the HIV sufferers are not symptomatic in the early stages, meaning they show no signs of the disease. The problem with most Filipino HIV sufferers is that they will not bother going to the doctor for testing until their health begins to fail. Only then will they have themselves tested, and when they are found to be positive, it would have been too late; they would have infected other people through indiscriminate sexual contact. By then, many HIV sufferers will be unprepared to face the deluge of issues caused by the stigma of having HIV and the plethora of health problems, coming in waves one after the other. This is the time when the term “disabled” becomes an apt description.
Though HIV is considered to be a chronic disease, those who are given PWD IDs, are usually tagged as psychosocial as the nature of their disability. There is a reason why some PDAO (persons with disability affairs office) assessors have tagged PLHIV as psychosocially disabled; medical information such as testing positive for HIV cannot be disclosed publicly. It is in the interest of the PLHIV that his illness not be revealed because of the discrimination suffered as soon as the condition is known. It has been documented that in some provincial municipal PDAOs have indicated “mental illness” as the nature of disability in the PWD ID. There is also a stigma attached to those who are sufferers of mental illness and may not be any better than just admitting outright that the person has HIV.
As a disability, HIV is more than just the sum of its haters. The PLHIV is often considered to be a walking contagion. This is something that will take years to correct in the minds of the general public. Unlike sufferers or survivors of cancer or someone with an inborn disability such as blindness or deafness, HIV sufferers do not get any sympathy from those around them. Their own families hate them as they become an emotional and financial burden, plus the fear of contracting the disease in some other way other than sexual contact. HIV is a badge of humiliation and condemnation, something that other PWDs do not suffer as much. At the very least, other PWDs get pity. PLHIVs get hated. In a restaurant, a PLHIV who flashes a PWD ID that lists HIV positive as their disability face the possibility of refusal of service, something that restaurants, spas, salons and other service establishments are actually entitled to under the law.
Current laws dictate that there is a certain age requirement for HIV testing. Those who are 16 and younger cannot be tested without the approval of their legal guardians or parents. Good luck expecting a 17-year old sexually active teenager voluntarily go for HIV testing just for the prudence of it. No one would also be brave enough to go to a government clinic for free testing because of the stigma, the possible reputational issues and even the fear of the parents finding out. With changes to the law being made ready, HIV testing will soon be available to teenagers younger than 16 years old and will not require parental approval, making anonymous testing more accessible.
With enough education and understanding, HIV can be preventable and the youth kept safe. HIV is not as contagious as people think it is, if only the people are well-educated on the nature of this disease and how it is transmitted.
Mr. Lazaro does reputation management, brand development, social advocacy and political campaigns.