Saturday, December 11, 2010

UK OFWs raise concern over HIV/AIDS test

LONDON - Overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in the United Kingdom have differing opinions on a mandatory HIV/AIDS test the government may consider as a requirement for every Filipino planning to work abroad.
The recent statistics acknowledging the alarming rise of HIV positive cases among OFWs has prompted the government to take significant action to stop these numbers from further going up. The Philippine Congress has also ordered an investigation on HIV/AIDS cases in the country.

According to the Department of Health (DOH) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), there are at least 4 to 5 Filipinos who test positive with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) every day. As of October this year, there are 1,501 OFWs suffering from HIV/AIDS.

Surge in male OFWs with HIV/AIDS

Many of the reported HIV/AIDS cases are from the Filipino migrant male workers’ population. One out of every 4 Filipinos diagnosed HIV positive is an OFW. Seventy-five percent are male workers.
In the UK, some Filipinos, especially male workers who are gay, often visit gay bars, clubs, restaurants and bathhouses such as those in Soho, London. It is like Malate in Manila where restaurants, pubs, bars and clubs are established for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) customers.
OFWs like Jun (not his real name), a technical support worker, admitted going to bathhouses here in England. He commented that bathhouses or gay bars partially contribute to the increase in the number of HIV/AIDS positive cases among OFWs.

“Yes, because it’s a random sex activity in there and it's casual,” he said.
But he also stressed that HIV/AIDS can be prevented through personal responsibility and awareness even if people go to those places.  
“No, because if you are aware and educated enough and always looking after yourself, HIV can be prevented,” he said.
Criminal liability for HIV carriers

Vice President Jejomar Binay has opined recently that like some countries that have a law spelling out the criminal liability of HIV positive people in certain cases, the Philippines should also have one to prevent the virus from spreading.
In Germany, a popular singer was found guilty of causing bodily harm to one of her partners who got infected with the virus after they had sex. She did not disclose her HIV-positive condition to him. She was meted out a 2-year suspended sentence and 300 hours of community service.
But some Filipinos don't believe that holding HIV carriers criminally liable for not disclosing their condition to their partners could help in efforts to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Frederick Juatco, a careworker in South Wimbledon, does not see this as the solution to the problem. He emphasized that people lack the right information about the disease.
“I don't think criminal liability will help solve the soaring HIV population in the country. The thing is, the information dissemination is not enough as well as education to the people about right or wrong in unprotected sex. Morality is against criminal laws so you can't judge people with this condition nor prevent them from doing such a thing,” he said.
But the Philippines has already enacted a law to help prevent the spread of AIDS or HIV. This is the Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998. A recent report, however, concluded that many people are not aware of it.
Although the law includes a provision of not forcing anyone to undergo AIDS or HIV screening test for employment, school acceptance or travel purpose, some OFWs in the UK believe that the government might propose a mandatory AIDS or HIV screening for every Filipino planning to work overseas.
Mandatory screening concerns

One of the major concerns of OFWs is who will finance the fee if AIDS/HIV screening test will be proposed and implemented.
They think that the test will only be an additional financial burden for many Filipinos who are already struggling to finance their application to work abroad.
Lota Enriquez, a caregiver in Croydon, Surrey, acknowledged that the present state of the economy of the country could make it difficult for OFWs and the government to pay for the cost of the HIV/AIDS screening.

“With the present state of the country's economy, it is far fetched for either the government or the OFWs to share the expenses for the mandatory HIV test,” she said.
She also suggested that employers should shoulder the fee for the screening.
“It must be the employers’ responsibility since they are employing these credible and reliable OFWs. The cost of the test can be dizzyingly high for an employee who had already spent an unimaginable amount for the processing of papers,” she said.
Cooperation is also seen as a major component for this endeavor. Basti, (not his real name), a hospital nurse from Wales who has a male partner, pointed out that this mandatory test requires cooperation from everyone especially from employers.
“I think it should be a big step. It should also include cooperation from employers,” he said.
But he also sees politics as one of the major concerns here. If the government proposes this measure, he said politics should be set aside in choosing the medical facility or company that will conduct the testing as bidding in projects like this could breed corruption.
“The government should know the purpose. It should set aside political gains. Some politicians might only think of illegal financial profits from this situation,” he said.
Harsh measure, better solution needed

Other Filipino workers here disapproved the idea of a mandatory AIDS/HIV test but suggested a more aggressive awareness campaign and support for people with HIV.
Jun, the technical support worker, stressed that a mandatory HIV test is a harsh rule to implement among kababayans.

“Mandatory HIV/AIDS testing is harsh. The government should instead create sexual health clinics that are accessible for our kababayan and that will offer free consultations, counseling and testing,” he said.
Most of the pubs, bars, restaurants and even fast-food chains like McDonald's here have vending machines selling condoms and population control products like pills.
Sybelle Cahanap, a support worker from Norwich, England, recognized this as one possible solution to help curb the rise in HIV/AIDS population.
“I think those vending machines, if they don’t totally help prevent people from acquiring HIV at least, they could lessen the cases in the country. And I’m sure some of our Filipino workers here have seen these as important tools for combating HIV/AIDS in First World countries like UK,” she said.
She also suggested that the Department of Health provide free STD (sexually transmitted disease) check kits like what UK's National Health Service (NHS) has been doing for the past years.
“One solution also is to provide those STD kits to Filipinos aged 16 – 24 that I also received a few years back from NHS,” she said.
The UK’s NHS STD check kit helps young adults check if they are positive with any type of STD particularly chlamydia. Users need only to send their urine samples through the small pot included in the kit. After sending the kits back, the NHS will provide the results through the young adults’ chosen method, like text, letter, or phone call.

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