When Wanggo Gallaga, 29, a Filipino writer from the capital, Manila and the son of a critically acclaimed film director, publicly announced he was HIV positive, it sent a powerful message that anyone can get HIV.
The national adult HIV prevalence is less than 0.1 percent in a population of 90 million, making the Philippines a low-incidence country, but since the 1990s, only two people have publicly admitted having the virus. Wanggo spoke to IRIN/PlusNews shortly after disclosing his HIV status on national television.
"I became sexually active when I was 17, and had my first boyfriend. When it ended, I realised that after being involved with someone at such a young age, I didn't know how to go out and meet people. I didn't know how to date.
"It wasn't until three years later, when social networking websites made meeting people on-line easy, that things changed. What I couldn't do in person, I could do online. I would randomly chat with someone, agree to meet, and have sex. It was that simple.
"It was in 2004 when I had the most number of sexual encounters. Once, I actually listed them down and counted 68 different partners.
"Most of these encounters were unprotected. A partner would often say, 'I'm sorry, I don't like using a condom', and I would consent to it.
"I knew that this was risky, and I knew I might get sick, but I also thought that HIV and AIDS only happened abroad. Until you actually know someone who has it, it doesn't seem real.
"In 2007 I began getting sick a lot – usually with a fever or flu - but the incidents happened far apart so I didn't suspect anything.
"In 2008 it got worse. I got sick nearly every month and suffered from more serious illnesses like ear infections, bronchitis and pneumonia. In August of that same year, while getting a chest x-ray, I asked to be tested for HIV.
"At the time that I was diagnosed, my viral load [the amount of HI-virus in the blood] was 1.3 million, whereas a manageable amount is about 55,000, so my doctors suspected that I may have had it for some time.
"I really thought I was going to die soon. I did some research, but it was hard to find information about HIV and AIDS specific to the Philippines.
"More than death, what scares me is getting sick and the medical expenses. One week after I was diagnosed, I contracted meningitis and was hospitalised for two months. My family and I are still paying for the medical bills.
"Right now, my viral load is down. I am on ARV [antiretroviral] medication, anti-pneumonia pills and vitamins. ARVs are free to HIV patients because of the Global Fund [to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria], but we are worried about what will happen in 2012, when the funding will stop.
"Last December , a photographer friend held a photo exhibit to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS. I was chosen to be one of the models and that's when I decided to go public with my disease.
"I was worried about judgment and discrimination, but no way did I expect the flow of support and prayers from people I don't even know. Some have come up to me on the street or messaged me [on my cellphone] to tell me that they have HIV, but would have never found the courage to openly admit it.
"Others found my website and started sending me questions. I don't ask them for their personal information, but you can tell that a lot of them are young and sexually active. I realised how little is known about HIV by the questions I was asked, like: 'There's a cure now, right?'
"It also shows that people don't know where to go, or who to talk to, to get information about HIV. People are having sex but are afraid to talk about it, and as a result are unaware of the need to protect themselves.
"I'm not with anyone now. I still get nervous about giving the virus to someone else - I myself don't even know who I got it from. I want people to learn from what happened to me, get the right information, be smart, and insist on their right to have protected sex."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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