PHILIPPINES - Journeying with HIV/AIDS

Published Date: March 23, 2010

QUEZON CITY, Philippines (UCAN) – Counseling people infected and affected byHIV/AIDS is like journeying with persons often marginalized even by their own families, Order of Saint Camillus Brother Donald Cancino says.

The 35-year-old medical doctor who works with these persons attended the March 11-13 First Catholic Forum on HIV/AIDS co-sponsored by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice and Peace (CBCP-NASSA)

In his comments to UCA News, Brother Cancino explained his order’s two-pronged approach to the growing problem of HIV/AIDS in the country, reflected on experiences with people at the Department of Health’s San Lazaro Hospital , and those who go to theAsian Institute of Pastoral Health Care the Camillians run in their Philippine provincial compound in Quezon City.

His comments follow:
In 2007 our order mandated that every region must become involved in HIV ministry. We went to San Lazaro Hospital to serve, and did all they asked not only because it was required, but because we had a deep desire to begin the work.

The Philippines government that year rated the spread of the disease from Low and Slow to Hidden and Growing, but now it is considered Expanding.

After joining training workshops, we were finally allowed to serve clients. At first we simply did bedside visitations with patients in hospitals, RITM (Research Institute for Tropical Medicine), and San Lazaro.

We then began training our own men and theologians and opened our training program here to the Daughters of Charity, Good Shepherd Sisters and Sisters of the Holy Spirit.

We developed an action plan to combat the rising number of HIV patients in the country.

To combat HIV/AIDS people have to be aware and get tested. Because of the stigma attached to HIV, they say that only about one in four cases of HIV infection are reported. So it is possible instead of some 4,300 cases we have closer to 17,000.

Faith-based organizations and government conducted education programs to help people who had been afraid go for testing. Majority of cases are young males. The disease comes from sexual contact whether heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual unions, or injecting drug users. Drug cases went from eight more than two decades ago to 58 in early 2010.

In the beginning HIV was reportedly brought into the country by OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) and spread by sexual contact. Figures today show the spread is through local transmission.

The government can and should do more since they have the funds. They spend money on training seminars held in hotels, but they should be training in homes and hospitals. The most important thing for health workers is to experience the infected and affected. Book knowledge without being with infected people is useless. The problem with some government agencies is they only play with the numbers and do not go deeply enough into the situation of infected people.

Our order has developed a two-pronged program involving prevention and care, and support and treatment. We go to schools when invited for our HIV awareness program. We offer training in Pastoral HIV/Aids Counseling for people already involved in the ministry or who want to get involved.
It helps them to prepare the ’infected’ for pre-testing and post-testing for HIV. After the test the counselor has to be there as negative results might only mean the disease has not fully progressed.

Counselors have to know the behavior and history of their client. Is he in a risk situation – working overseas, using drugs, does he have support, does he sell his body for survival?

Our bedside ministry involves people with full-blown AIDS. HIV infected people are not kept in the hospital, but many of them go to the hospital to visit with us when we go Thursday 1-5 pm.

Our group is a mixture of those who have been coming for a while and newly diagnosed. They are on a journey with HIV/AIDS.

So many of our infected have been disowned by their families and literally thrown to live out on the streets with no moral or temporal support. They usually live in a place for a short time and then move never telling anyone about their disease.

Physical support for HIV/AIDS patients is present, but spiritual support is lacking.

People with HIV do not need medication and doctors may prescribe only vitamins and antibiotics if needed. HIV infected people are advised to follow healthy diets, exercise and keep a non-risk life style.

Individuals with AIDS usually take a cocktail of medication, two or three medicines at a time. Once started, one will be taking that for the rest of his life at a cost of 30,000-40,000 pesos a month (US$ 650-870).

Global Fund pays for the cost of medicines here in the country. It is free to all the people with AIDS at least until 2012.

Patients come here looking for God in their lives. They look for hope for what seems to be a hopeless life. Our recollection started with eight clients and we are now up to 33, not all Catholics. Catholics don’t seek only sacraments, but look for contact with other humans who will lead them to God.
A 21-year-old man came here. When I asked him “how do you feel” he cried almost the whole day. Later, he told us, “I have been able to tell my parents and family that I am HIV positive and what my sexual orientation is and they accepted me.”

We work with the “infected and affected”. One of the “cures” for those infected is the support of the affected. Without the understanding, those affected will not give needed support.

We opened the recollection to the ‘affected’ so they could share to the ‘infected’ what they are also going through because of the disease.

Partners get angry for the other’s infidelity, but in most cases even with anger there is acceptance and a willingness to take care of the other. This is why I say the only cure for this incurable disease is love.

HIV workers should working on our value education and behavioral changes. We must find a way to change values to stop young people involved in premarital sex, for wives and husbands to remain faithful and for OFWs to know what is expected of them. That is a long, long process.

At the First Catholic Forum on HIV/AIDS Father Bob Vitillo said we have to focus on the context of the situation not the side issues. At the end of the day after hearing what the government and the Church says it is the people themselves who will decide what they will do and not society or the Church. It will be based on their moral perspective and value system. We must start value regeneration in the family, but it is the responsibility of government and Church to re-enforce the value system.

While abstinences and being faithful are needed, we also need to teach “don’t use drugs and be faithful to your own value system”.

We saw at that forum networking is important. There are many groups that work with the ‘infected’, but there has been no concerted effort. We have people who work in “care and support” and others that work with prostitutes or youth.

We (Camillians) are not equipped to work with women so we send them to the Good Shepherd Sisters. We don’t work with children. We recommend them to the Order of Malta.

CBCP-NASSA is planning a follow up to the First Catholic Forum with a mission-vision-goal planning session. We plan to have a training session for network members April 28-30 here for pastoral counseling and later a seminar for those working in hospitals. We will have another seminar in June.

Camillians will hold our Asian Meeting in Bangkok May 12-16. Our order has members in Vietnam and Thailand who work with people infected with HIV.


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