[OPINION | DASH of SAS] Modernizing the Philippines' HIV law

Last week, Congress passed House Bill 6617 on its third and final reading. This will amend and modernize the existing HIV/AIDS Prevention Act that was passed in 1998 and bring it up to speed to reflect the nuances of today’s HIV epidemic. (READ: House improves bill to improve PH's HIV, AIDS policy)

I could give you a list of reasons why this bill is a step in the right direction in working towards curbing the country’s skyrocketing HIV infection rates. Instead, I will tell you about some of the people this bill will help and how its provisions can save lives and improve the quality of life of those living with HIV.

Lowering the age of consent for voluntary HIV testing to 15

Rey was 17 when he went for his first HIV test. His mother went with him. Under the current HIV law, Rey would not be given an HIV test because he is a minor without parental consent.

There aren’t a lot of teens like Rey who feel comfortable talking to their parents about getting an HIV test. The prospect of being hammered with questions about their sexuality and possible reprimand are enough to make most teens buckle.

When Rey shared his experience with me, he said that he was too shy to buy condoms and didn’t really know enough about them. “In a way, getting HIV was inevitable,” he said.  

HB 6617 allows for a minor between 15-17 to give his own consent to undergo a voluntary HIV test. It is based on the rationale of the “mature minor doctrine” and “evolving capacities of a child” meaning that with proper information and guidance, 15-17-year-olds can make autonomous choices about their health like getting an HIV test.

In cases where the minor is below 15 or medically incapacitated, consent must be obtained from a parent or legal guardian. In the absence of a parent or guardian, the bill allows a licensed social worker or health worker to give consent. This is based on the worker’s assessment of the minor’s risk exposure to HIV. Additionally, the bill says that any person below 15, who is married, pregnant or in high-risk behavior should be considered a mature minor and be eligible to given consent for HIV testing.

The provision on immunity from suit protects healthcare professionals from being sued for delivering HIV prevention services that are in the interest of the minor.

Government data shows that most newly reported HIV infections are among 15-24-year-old males. These adjustments on the age of consent are adapted to various situations minors may find themselves in. The line about teen mothers is specifically important given our climbing teen pregnancy rates.

Overall, the bill respects the decision-making capabilities of young people. It makes it easier for them to get an HIV test. Early HIV testing means early diagnosis and early treatment through anti-retroviral therapy (ART). And that means saving lives.

Prevention of vertical transmission

Vertical transmission of HIV is the transmission of the virus from an HIV-infected mother to her child during pregnancy, labor and delivery, or breastfeeding.

When Scarlet was pregnant with their second child, she didn’t think anything about the HIV test that the clinic suggested she take as part of her pre-natal exams. She was shocked when she tested reactive, which meant that she was positive for HIV. Her husband, Robert, a person who injects drugs (PWID), had promised her that he would stop using drugs. Scarlet had no idea about HIV and never thought that she would be at risk getting it.

A report by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) revealed that more than 90% of the 1.7 million women living with HIV in Asia are like Scarlet; they acquired the virus from boyfriends or husbands they were in long-term relationships with. These women likely did not engage in risky behavior but because their partners did, they were put at risk.

The provision on preventing vertical transmission will allow clinics to offer HIV testing to expectant mothers as part of their pre-natal exams. Early diagnosis is crucial to preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Expectant mothers who test positive can be put on anti-retroviral therapy. Interventions like this can reduce the risk of transmission of HIV to her unborn child to below 5%.

Bullying

The bill defines bullying as “any severe or repeated use by one or more persons of a written, verbal or electronic expression, or a physical act or gesture”, including social media and online reports and categorizes it as a discriminatory act. It also includes “name calling based on a person’s actual or perceived HIV status”.

Using one’s HIV status to shame a person is categorically defined as discriminatory.

This will help prevent the fate suffered by the 11 men who were arrested in a drug raid in Bonifacio Global City (BGC) last month. The news of their arrest turned into open season on social media. Their personal details were shared and the men were labeled all sorts of vicious names.

Confidentiality

The bill cites as unlawful the disclosure of one’s HIV status by anyone working in the delivery of HIV services and anyone who may have access to personal data in the workplace (example: Human Resources).

This strengthens the earlier provisions in the 1998 law that prohibits termination from the workplace on the basis of one’s HIV status. It will also ensure that the workplace is one that is a safe and secure environment free from discrimination.

It will offer additional protection for people like Renato Nocos, a hairstylist at a Ricky Reyes salon, who was terminated after he disclosed his HIV status to his employers.

Nocos filed a case of unlawful termination against the salon in 2015 and won.

There is a separate clause on confidentiality that prevents the media from disclosing one’s HIV status without the prior written consent of the individual. This should compel better and more responsible reporting on the part of media about HIV cases.

There are many other provisions in HB 6617 that give our existing HIV law the 2.0 upgrade that it needs. 

Read more about HB 6617 here.

Push the Upper House to pass Senate Bill 1390,  the counterpart bill of HB 6617, which was authored by Senator Risa Hontiveros so we can finally have an HIV law that will usher in concrete policies that are adapted to addressing the gaps in HIV prevention. – Rappler.com