HIV/AIDS in the Philippines: Low and Slow?
March 2003—HIV infection in the Philippines is often described as "low and slow," referring to the low prevalence rate and slow rate of new infections. In this country of 80 million, UNAIDS estimates that only 9,400 are living with HIV/AIDS (end of 2001). But among the country's 500,000 to 1 million commercial sex workers, there are alarmingly high rates of unprotected sex and sexually transmitted infections, and 52 percent of injection drugs users are estimated to have shared syringes in 2000 (UNAIDS/WHO Fact Sheet).
Located in Muntinlupa City in metropolitan Manila, the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) is the primary referral center for Filipinos with HIV/AIDS. RITM was founded in 1981 through a grant from the Japan International Cooperation Agency. After the first cases of HIV/AIDS in the Philippines were reported in 1984, RITM's HIV/ AIDS Research Program pioneered HIV/AIDS control in the country with clinical research, prevalence, education, and intervention studies, and a multidisciplinary approach to care. It also paved the way for the creation of the Philippines' National AIDS Program and the establishment of AIDS service organizations.
Dr. Rossana Ditangco, who heads the HIV/AIDS Research Program at RITM, attended her first TREAT Asia meeting in Bangkok in September 2002. There are currently less than 40 patients receiving antiretroviral treatment in the Philippines, according to Dr. Ditangco. The government-sponsored health insurance program is small, and antiretroviral treatment remains out of reach for many people with HIV/AIDS. RITM has been able to get discounted antiretrovirals through bulk purchases from the Indian generic manufacturer Cipla, and the treatments are available to those who can afford them.
As an essential part of its research program, RITM maintains a database of demographic and clinical information on Filipinos with HIV/AIDS—an important source of data for medical, social, and behavioral research. Over the years, RITM has amassed research on the natural history of HIV/AIDS among Filipinos, the use of antiretrovirals in the Philippines, cost-effective methods of HIV testing, and the economic impact of HIV/AIDS. Dr. Ditangco hopes that RITM's participation in TREAT Asia will encourage wider use of antiretrovirals by physicians and help lessen the stigma and discrimination that many people with HIV/AIDS face in the Philippines.