Two countries, opposite approaches: HIV on the rise in Russia and the Philippines

Note: This was cross-posted to my own blog.


Two different articles on rising HIV rates in two different countries crossed my social media news feeds today; I though I would juxtapose them here because they embody very different approaches to a problem (embedded within two very different sociopolitical environments, of course).

The first piece from the BBC focuses on an alarming rise in HIV rates in Russia:

For years Russia has remained remarkably silent on the challenge it faces from HIV and Aids. Now that silence has been broken by an epidemiologist who has been working in the field for more than two decades – and he calls the situation “a national catastrophe”.

Vadim Pokrovsky, the softly spoken head of the Federal Aids Centre in Moscow, has watched as the figures have climbed remorselessly upwards.

There are about one million people living with HIV today in Russia and year on year the rate of infection is rising, unlike sub-Saharan Africa where the rate of increase is slowing. This is according to Russia’s official figures, which almost everyone agrees are a substantial underestimate of the true position.

The epidemic in Russia, argues Mr. Pokrovsky, has been driven by ideological (rather than evidence-based) policies on sex education and injection drug therapy that have been pushed by the Russian Orthodox Church and a conservative government. Education officials argue that comprehensive sex education will encourage kids to have sex (despite plenty of evidence to the contrary), while the use of methadone replacement as a harm reduction strategy for injection drug users is ridiculed and banned (despite the method’s success in reducing HIV transmission through injection drug use in Europe and Australia). HIV infections have predominantly been driven by injection drug use in the past, but sexual transmission is on the rise. Apparently Russia is not on the evidence-based health policy bandwagon.

According to Al Jazeera, meanwhile, the picture of rising HIV rates in the Philippines looks quite different:

In the last five years, HIV cases have gone up 277 percent in the Philippines. While the total number is less than one percent of the 100 million population, it continues to rise. From one reported case every three days in 2000, there are now 21 new cases recorded every day, according to the latest government report.

A separate UN study ranks the Philippines as among the seven countries with over 25 percent or more increase in HIV cases annually from 2001 to 2009, even as the worldwide trend continues to fall.

“Unlike in other parts of the world, the AIDS Epidemic in the Philippines has been growing rapidly,” the Philippine National AIDS Council said.

Danton Remoto, university professor and gay rights activist, however, said that the real number could be 10 to 20 times higher. And he attributed the underreporting to the stigma associated with the disease, particularly among the gay community, the section of the Philippine society worst hit by the disease.

In the case of the Philippines, it has largely been government inaction (rather than counterproductive policies) and social stigma surrounding homosexuality and safer sex practices in the overwhelmingly Catholic country that have driven the epidemic. There is a silver lining here, however, as governments have begun to move (albeit slowly):

Cortes said that only a handful of the 1,634 cities and towns in the country, have programmes related to HIV prevention. She also said that a “very low condom use and low overall knowledge” about reproductive health has contributed to Filipinos engaging in risky sexual behaviours.

It was only in 2014, when the country’s reproductive health law was given a greenlight by the Supreme Court, after it was challenged by the Catholic Church as unconstitutional. The law mandates sex education and access to artificial birth control methods, including condom use.

It also includes provisions on HIV-AIDS awareness and treatment.

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