HIV in the Philippines is spreading faster than any other country in the world, and health advocates are saying that dating apps — along with the lack of education — may be part of the problem.
Citing numbers by the United Nations’ AIDS agency, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that the estimated number of new HIV infections in the Philippines has more than doubled from 2013 to 2018, especially among young men. This, despite a decline in infections being seen world-wide.
Of the total 67,395 people diagnosed with HIV since the infection first surfaced in the country in 1984, more than three-quarters were diagnosed in the past five years, according to Philippine government data.
The vast majority of those who contracted the virus from a sexual encounter were gay and bisexual men between the ages of 15 to 34.
While the government doesn’t record how people meet their partners, interviews with patients, doctors, and epidemiologists reveal that most meet online.
One 27-year-old who was interviewed by the WSJ said he was diagnosed with HIV in 2017 and believes he contracted HIV after having unprotected sex for the first time with a man he met on Grindr, a dating app that caters to the gay, bi, trans, and queer community.
“Young people are on dating apps these days, and they will have sex,” Jigg told WSJ. “We need to equip them with the knowledge and resources that come with it.”
Like in many countries in Asia, young people in the Philippines have turned to the internet due to the wide availability of smartphones, intuitive apps, and cheap data plans.
The internet, as the WSJ reported, has been an empowering platform for members of the LGBTQ community in the Philippines who have otherwise found it difficult to find the same support and access to meeting partners of the same gender offline.
But as the article highlighted, the uptick in online activity has clashed with the majority Catholic country’s lack of sex education and HIV screenings.
In response to the epidemic, Philippine lawmakers just this year passed a bill that lowered the HIV screen age from 18 to 15. It also encouraged sex education in schools.
The Philippines’ health ministry also recently joined HIV testing nonprofits who bring finger-prick HIV tests outside to gay clubs and gay beauty pageants, and offered antiretrovirals to those who test positive. Antiretrovirals — though often challenging to get — prevent the virus from progressing.
But outside the government, many young men have been taking education and the promotion of screenings into their own hands and through the same platforms that brought them a sense of community.
Desi Andrew Ching was diagnosed HIV positive in 2007, a time he noticed infections rising among his gay peers. He told the WSJ that while the internet allowed those in the gay community to venture out and meet others, HIV infections began to increase as cheap smartphones became accessible to more people.
“I couldn’t sit around and do nothing,” Ching told the WSJ. So he quit his job with JPMorgan Chase & Co., and founded the nonprofit HIV & AIDS Support House (HASH) to promote HIV screening.
Because talking about HIV was still taboo, Ching used apps like Grindr and Tinder, to not only encourage men to get screened, but to actually meet with men and get them screened.
Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter were also successful platforms in reaching out to other young men.
Many volunteers, with training funded by UNAIDS, began creating app profiles asking people to swipe right for free HIV tests.
One volunteer, Romar Valentine Torres, amassed 13,000 followers on Twitter and began using his following to dispel myths about HIV and promote sex safety and education. But his encounters on social media have not been without hate mail and threats.
“A lot of Filipinos are still very conservative and they don’t like to see people talking about sex,” Torres told WSJ.
Danvic Rosadino, a program manager at a nonprofit LoveYourself, said that such conservatism has been reflected in the efforts to introduce preventative HIV medicine and antiretrovirals.
One drug, PrEP (Pre-exposure prophylaxis), has been used in other Western countries including the U.S., which approved its use in 2012.
Rosadino said that LoveYourself, which is authorized by the Philippine government to distribute antiretrovirals, attempted to bring the drug to the Philippines for years and now is the only organization in the country distributing it. Pharmacies don’t carry it and it isn’t covered by government insurance.
“People were opposed because they believe it would encourage more promiscuous behavior,” told the WSJ.
But for those who are among the growing number of young men seeing HIV as being a reality around them, HIV screenings are becoming part of a much needed conversation.
“Many people are afraid to get tested,” a 29-year-old call center worker named Marigona said in the report. “I’d rather know than live in fear.”