UNAIDS sees ‘second wave’ of HIV epidemic in PH as COVID-19 blocks access to services

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 7) — The Philippines is facing a second wave of HIV epidemic as COVID-19 blocks access to life-saving testing and treatment services, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS said Tuesday.

“In the Philippines, we are seeing a second wave of epidemic, particularly targeting young men who have sex with men and transgender,” UNAIDS Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific Eamonn Murphy told CNN Philippines’ New Day.

HIV -- or human immunodeficiency virus -- destroys the cells in the body that fight diseases or infection. If left untreated, it could progress to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS, which could lead to death.

Murphy noted that the young people are more sexually active and more dynamic in the way they live; thereby ‘creating a new generation’ that is at risk of getting HIV. He said that the upward trend among the youth aged 15 to 24 years old has been observed across Asia and the Pacific.

Globally, lockdowns aimed at avoiding COVID-19 transmission have prevented access to services, increased stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV, he pointed out.

To address this problem, Murphy said countries need to find ‘innovative’ solutions such as delivering PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, a drug that can reduce a person’s risk of contracting HIV, and testing kits to people via couriers and doing online counseling.

“It is critical that we get these medicines out to young people who are sexually active,” he said. “In some countries like the Philippines where condom access is difficult, PrEP is a major success."

The Philippines — while quite innovative compared to other countries — has to put more effort to quickly convince those in key populations at high risk of contracting HIV to avail themselves of services, Murphy said, stressing that the critical issue is "the scale and pace."

Worldwide, a total 3.5 million HIV infections have been recorded since 2015, with 1.7 million cases reported in 2019 alone, according to a report released by UNAIDS on Monday. It warned that the number will continue to rise if there are no renewed response efforts amid the pandemic's disruptions to HIV-related services.

“COVID-19 is threatening to blow us completely off course. It's going to potentially push back all the successes that have been achieved. It's going to create barriers to those already in treatment,” Murphy said.

UNAIDS -- composed of 11 United Nations organizations -- seeks to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030.