Congress urged to speed up passage of bill amending HIV, AIDS law

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 25) — An advocacy group is appealing to Congress to expedite the passage of a more timely and "relevant" law on Human Immunodeficiency Virus infection and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (HIV and AIDS).

As the Philippines slips behind in addressing the ballooning cases of HIV in the country, Action for Health Initiatives Executive Director Mara Quesada is asking Senate to get the ball rolling on a law that could potentially save thousands of Filipinos' lives.

"[We have] been pushing for a bill that could amend our current AIDS law because we need it to be updated and be more relevant to the current HIV epidemic…We're calling on the Senate to also please get the process along because at the moment we're still in the period of interpellation,"  Quesada told CNN Philippines.

Bills in both the houses have been filed to amend the AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998. However, the Philippines HIV and AIDS Policy Act filed before Senate is still pending for second reading.

Senate Bill No. 1390 aims to strengthen the prevention and treatment of HIV and AIDS, and to improve the care and support given to people diagnosed with the infection.

Its counterpart bill at the Lower House just passed second hearing on November 21.

Quesada's call comes amid increasing cases of HIV and AIDS in the  Philippines - particularly among millennials.

READ: DOH: More millennials diagnosed with HIV 

Quesada said a fourth of the total number of HIV cases in the country are among people aged 15 to 24 – with roughly 95 percent of cases caused by unprotected sex.

The Department of Health said as of 2016, the Philippines has 56,000 HIV cases or around about 30 new cases of HIV per day. It added, the number may almost triple by 2022 if HIV prevention measures do not become more effective in the next five years.

With an updated law on the epidemic, Quesada said it will be easier to ensure young people have access to services like HIV testing, in addition to reducing the stigma on HIV. 

"One of the most important aspects of this bill that we're pushing for is access of young people to HIV testing and services because at the moment there is an increasing number of young people getting infected with HIV. Another aspect of the bill is a better response to HIV-related  stigma and discrimination," she said.

Under the bill, a person 15 years old or above shall have access to HIV testing and counseling even without the consent of a parent or guardian. Those below 15 but are pregnant or engaged in high-risk behavior may be eligible for these services when assisted by a social worker.

The existing law requires parental consent for minors below 18 to take the HIV test.

HIV attacks the body's immune system, which helps in fighting off infections. Over time, when the body's immune system is severely weakened, the person develops AIDS.

The virus stays inside the body for life once acquired. Although there is still no cure for HIV, there are medicines which stop the virus from multiplying called antiretroviral drugs (ARVs).

Among other reforms, the amendment aims to clarify the state's role in HIV/AIDS response, as well as strengthen education, and stigma reduction mechanisms of the law. It also aims to promote a response to the epidemic that promotes respect of human rights and  dignity.

Quesada highlighted the importance of eradicating the negative perception of HIV/AIDS. She emphasized people with the disease are regular people, too.

"There are three main messages that you can prevent it and we will explain that. I mean mainly it's about protected, using protection, and having HIV is not a death sentence," she said. "Many people think that when you hear HIV/AIDS this is it. But actually, there is life after HIV."

House Bill No. 53 was introduced in the 17th Congress by Dinagat Islands Rep. Kaka Bag-ao. Meanwhile, Senate Bill No. 1390 was prepared and  submitted jointly by the Committees on Health and Demography; Education,  Arts and Culture; and Finance with Senators Hontiveros, Legarda, Trillanes  IV, Angara, Poe and Binay.

HIV/AIDS is among the communicable diseases the Duterte administration  has vowed to control in its Philippine Health Agenda plan for 2016-2022  spearheaded by the DOH.