July 26, 2017 / 2:03 PM / 3 years ago

Philippines trials anti-HIV drug as cases hit record high

KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Philippines has kicked off a pilot project offering anti-HIV drugs to gays and transgender women as new infection rates in the country buck global trends and hit a record high.

Under the project, 200 HIV-negative gay men and transgender women will be given a daily pill known as PrEP that is designed to protect the body pre-exposure, rather than after HIV spreads.

The study will run for two years and is the latest attempt by the Philippines to cut its rising incidence of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which can lead to AIDS, as rates fall in other parts of the world.

“This is the first time PrEP is being offered in the Philippines, this is very exciting,” said Danvic Rosadino from Love Yourself, an LGBT group involved in the project.

“With the continued rise in new HIV cases, this is really timely and relevant. All interventions regarding HIV preventions should be made available in the Philippines,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Manila.

According to the latest data released by the Philippine health department on Tuesday, a total of 1,098 new HIV cases were recorded in May - the highest monthly figure since the country’s first reported case in 1984.

About 97 percent of the new cases were transmitted through sexual contact, the majority among men who have sex with men.

Activists say social stigma associated with HIV prevents at-risk groups from getting tested, while access to condom and HIV testing is also a challenge.

But groups involved in the pilot project say they hope the scheme will help turn the tide.

Rossana Ditangco from the government’s Research Institute for Tropical Medicine said the project is important as more than 60 percent of new infections in the country are among young gay men aged between 15 and 24, who report low condom use.

“The use of condoms may not be feasible to many of these young people, even if they have the capacity to buy or have access to free condoms,” said Ditangco, who is the head of the AIDS Study Group at the institute.

According to Rosadino, from Love Yourself, the project has received 600 applications and so far 30 people who passed screening tests have started taking the free oral pill, which is known as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).

The remaining 170 places will next be filled.

The project is also supported by the New York-based Foundation for AIDS Research and the World Health Organization.

Latest data from UNAIDS last week showed encouraging progress against the worldwide HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Some 36.7 million people globally are infected with HIV, but more than half of them get antiretroviral therapy medicines, which suppress the HIV virus and keep their disease in check.

Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org

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