by JOYCE ANNE B. ROBIÑO
MANILA (OFW Journalism Consortium)—THE rising number of overseas Filipino workers with the human immunodeficiency virus hasn’t rattled government and UN executives who assert the country will still meet one of the targets of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
The HIV incidence among returning OFWs, and among the general Filipino populace, is “low and slow,” Dr. Roderick Poblete of the United Nations Population Fund said.
Poblete spoke to the OFW Journalism Consortium days after the World AIDS Day commemoration on December 1, as eight years are left before the 2015 deadline for governments to make true their promises to eradicate debilitating conditions of the poor. One of these is HIV, which causes the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.
The observation from Poblete came after latest figures (end-October) from the health department’s HIV/Aids Registry show that nearly half or 1,042 of the 2,997 Filipinos recorded to have HIV worked abroad previously.
The figures didn’t say in which countries these Filipinos worked temporarily. Neither did it say if the Filipinos acquired the fatal virus from their work overseas.
The year 2007 saw the OFW figure in the HIV/Aids Registry reaching the 1,000-mark: the cumulative number reached 991 last April. It hit above a thousand a month later.
But even as 2007 has some 87 recorded cases thus far, this year’s HIV and migration count will not likely surpass the record number of 130 cases in the year 2006.
Poblete downplays the number of cases. He says the figure is small if compared to the eight million Filipinos working temporarily or permanently abroad.
With US$13 billion in remittances, the numbers are “relatively small” as the country can still afford to care for those who are infected and affected by HIV, Poblete claims.
The only catch is that Filipinos’ global presence makes the country deal “with a global epidemic,” adds Poblete, who manages the Joint UN Programme on HIV and Migration for the Philippines, which his office coordinates.
Health experts have noted that OFW infections come from different parts of the world, which now has some 33.2 million people living with HIV.
The MDGs, inspired by the United Nations at the turn of this millennium that sets out development goals by individual countries, has “Combat HIV and Aids, Malaria, and other diseases” as among the goals.
HALFWAY into the 15-year span of the MDGs, a country report claims the Philippines continuously kept within the goal of keeping the HIV/Aids incidence to below one percent of the total population.
Still, the National Economic and Development Authority, which released the report last October, expressed worries over the “increasing number of newly-reported HIV cases”.
The agency is referring to the year 2006 where the country’s HIV Registry recorded the highest number of HIV cases in a year with 309, and also among OFWs with 130.
“Six Filipinos were detected with HIV every week. One in three cases was an OFW, mostly seafarers and domestic workers who reportedly had unprotected sexual contact,” the NEDA MDG report wrote.
The year 2006 cases, NEDA’s report suggests, that the infection “has spread, not reversed”.
Yet the NEDA report says the probability to attain this MDG target for HIV is “high,” even if there seems to be an “underreporting” of the HIV count in the Philippines.
If the latest HIV/Aids registry count will be considered, some HIV analysts think the Philippine figure should be multiplied by five times to reach over-11,000 cases.
Still, the multiplied figure will remain below one percent of the Philippine population, estimated to be currently at 88 million, NEDA’s MDG report said.
Even if one percent of the over-8 million Filipinos abroad (or some 80,000 OFWs) contracts the disease before the 2015 MDG timeline, the Philippine figure will still be less than one percent of the total Filipino population, Poblete explains.
LIKE Poblete, Maria Lourdes Marin of the nonprofit Action for Health Initiatives (Achieve) agrees the HIV count in the Philippines to include OFWs “might not even get to the point where it will develop into an epidemic.”
“It seems that we don’t have a problem reaching that goal for 2015,” adds Marin, Achieve executive director.
Marin, whose group is the only nonprofit focused on HIV and migration, notes that some policies make it easy to detect HIV/Aids cases among OFWs as a group.
She explains this is due to the current requirement that Filipinos undergo mandatory testing during their stay overseas for work. A Filipino discovered carrying the precursor to Aids is sent back to the sending country.
Despite the easy detection, Marin classifies OFWs as a “vulnerable,” ”—not “high-risk”— group compared to commercial sex workers or males having sex with males.
It is their work conditions, not their sexual behavior, that makes OFWs vulnerable, Marin explains.
Both Poblete and Marin say the country should remain vigilant despite the “low and slow” HIV count among overseas workers.
Now is the best time to provide interventions –while the country is still on the lead with the MDG target and “is capable of managing the situation,” Poblete said.
According to him, OFW remittance could be tapped to augment “adequate HIV information, which includes migration, human rights, gender sensitivity and sexuality”.
While non-government organizations and foundations are slowly targeting overseas workers in their education programs, the Philippines is now receiving some grants by international and multilateral organizations to implement multifarious interventions related to HIV and migration.
Still, Poblete said these programs should be constantly evaluated on effectiveness in addressing HIV prevalence among OFWs.
It may be “too early to tell,” Poblete says, of what will happen to the country’s target for Goal 6 as regards HIV prevalence.
“[But] even if the numbers are low and slow, we seem not to be in line in halting and reversing the spread modality,” says Poblete.
Another area that Poblete said should be looked into is the resource implications of a rising HIV incidence among OFWs.
“There will be an effect in the cost of care and support interventions, since more will be [hypothetically] infected, causing an increase in resource requirements for care, which could have been spent in increasing the coverage for prevention programs.”