Voices: "The Point Is that Anybody Can Get HIV"
March 2009—Roberto M. Ruiz is a board member of Positive Action Foundation Philippines and project manager of a Global Fund-supported program to scale up treatment, care, and support for people living with HIV/AIDS. His work has helped secure free antiretrovirals for HIV-positive Filipinos.
I grew up in a broken family but graduated from college and was living with my mother while working at a five-star hotel in Manila. After work, I would sometimes join my friends for a night out. I was well-informed on how to prevent sexually transmitted infections and even thought about AIDS, but because of alcohol and drug use, I sometimes skipped using a condom. Some friends today make an issue out of my denial that I was gay, but the real issue was not my sexuality. The point is that anybody can get HIV.
“But my proudest achievement has been in setting an example to all that there is nothing wrong with being HIV positive. We are just like anybody else.”
I found out I was HIV positive in 1993 when I applied for a visa to work on a cruise ship in the US I had undergone HIV testing without any counseling and found out after a week that I was HIV positive. The first thing that came into my mind was that I could no longer work, but then I began to worry that I was going to die.
After I was diagnosed with HIV, the Research Institute for Tropical Medicines (RITM) in Manila provided me with the counseling and medical services I needed—so I realized I didn't have to die. But access to antiretroviral treatment (ART) was the most difficult issue in the early days of AIDS in the Philippines. From 1995 to 2000, there were only about 30 Filipinos in the country on ART—including me. Around half of us were covered under clinical trials; the rest paid for it out of their own pockets. The price of medication then was 30,000 to 50,000 pesos (US$800-$1,000) a month. But support for free ART ended in December 2000. So an organization I belonged to called Positive Action Foundation Philippines took the initiative, in partnership with RITM, to gain access to generic ART.
At first, it was almost impossible for us to bring the drugs into the country because of the piles of paperwork we had to complete just to get them released from customs. So we lobbied different institutions, emphasizing our right to treatment access. We also formed a support group called the Treatment Action Group of the Philippines (TAGOP), and lobbied the Department of Health until they agreed to continue providing free ART to all Filipinos living with HIV/AIDS.
For me, the path to becoming an AIDS advocate began back in 1993 when I first disclosed my status. The day I was diagnosed I told my family and close friends. After a week, I disclosed my status to my immediate superior at work. By 2003, I had decided to open up about my HIV status on national television—to use my real identity to give a face to HIV, to represent Filipinos living with HIV/AIDS. My family agreed it was a good idea, but the reaction in my community was mixed. To those townspeople who worried I might be contagious, my family provided accurate information so they could understand. If they still had a problem after that, it was their problem.
Here in the Philippines, I have a lot of challenges now, including advocating to maintain free ART, and charting which actions TAGOP will take next. But my proudest achievement has been in setting an example to all that there is nothing wrong with being HIV positive. We are just like anybody else.