I had an HIV test last Friday evening and I'm happy to report that I'm negative. Are you surprised? Tse! Since coming to BKK, I've had four tests so far. I do it at least twice a year. I always practice safe sex but still I get regular testing, you know, just in case. No matter how many times I've done it, I still get pretty tensed minutes leading to the test and especially when I'm about to hear the result.
I learned last Friday that the HIV infection rate among gay men in BKK is now thirty percent. When I first arrived here, the rate was already a high twenty-four percent, but the current figure is just alarmingly high, making it more imperative that we get ourselves tested as regularly as possible.
Having an HIV test in BKK is made convenient by the Silom Clinic at the Bangkok Christian Hospital. Catering specifically to men, the tests are free and quick (regular HIV test results are out in 30 minutes). I believe they also give counseling and medication to those who test positive.
At the clinic last Friday, the nurse asked me if there are such free clinics in the Philippines, but regrettably I only know one clinic in Malate that does HIV testing and some sort of counseling and information drive. (I hope some readers who know about other similar clinics or organizations to contribute to this post.)
I was quite sad to inform the nurse that there is hardly any serious and long-term effort in spreading information on safe-sex practices in the Philippines. The situation is more dismal for assistance to people who are HIV positive (as far as my limited knowledge is concerned and again, I'm soliciting inputs from the readers). Such an initiative is very crucial at a time when HIV infection among Filipinos is rising.
To focus on the case of men having sex with men (MSM), reports indicate an alarming increase in HIV infection in this sector. In this article for instance (Government warns vs HIV danger in MSM sector, released in December 2008), a government health official notes "that MSM has become the new sexual norm (in HIV transmission)".
The article also reports that since the Philippines started recording HIV cases, "males comprised 69 percent of the total infections through heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual contact, with MSM triggering the bulk". Further, "in the cumulative total of 1,097 infected MSM from 1984 to 2008, 49 percent were reported in the last three years alone; 108 have died when reported, and slightly more MSM were reportedly already with AIDS".
As I do not have in-depth knowledge (nor access to scientific studies) of the prevailing sexual behavior of Filipino gay men, or those who are into MSM in general, I can only speculate on their practices and perceptions. In my generation and those younger at least, there is a more relaxed attitude towards homosexuality, hence, gay men are relatively open to explore and express their sexuality.
Internet dating sites and saunas are widely available, casual sex is common, and consumption of alcohol and drugs is rising. I'm not saying any of the aforementioned is wrong or right, but together with these factors safe sex practices are often neglected. Mis-information and ignorance dominate instead.
Often, I'd hear young people saying only sex workers get infected by HIV. Also, if their sex partners look healthy chances are they are not HIV positive. Some also believe that using a condom is not as pleasurable.
There is definitely a wide chasm between risky behavior versus informed decisions, as backed by a survey among MSM in the Philippines that showed only two out of five men used a condom with their most recent sex partner (more in Filipino MSM and the epidemic of HIV infection).
Further proof of the lack of awareness on and practice of safe sex among MSM is that among the newly infected, most are students and young professionals. It is expected that those who have access to education would be somehow better informed but that is certainly not the case, I'm afraid.
For many years now government policy towards sex education is close to zero. Filipino society is generally conservative, courtesy mainly of our Catholic upbringing, hence the first mention of the birds and the bees in our classrooms would send the clergy breathing fire on the pulpit. Also because of the church's strong influence on politics, the government is adamant to not touch such a sensitive topic should the men in robes campaign against them.
The church is only one of the interest groups advocating against sex education (and please don't get me started on reproductive health and divorce), although they are certainly one of the strongest among the lot. As a whole, however, Filipinos still refuse to speak about sex, much less homosexuality, hence turning a blind eye on what could very well be a ticking time bomb.