It’s been more than four years but Cassandra* still remembers how her hands were shaking when she got the sealed envelope that contained her HIV results. "My Facebook org had organized an HIV testing activity and a bunch of us were getting tested. My then-boyfriend and I signed up. It was supposed to be no big deal," says the 30-year-old media communications specialist.
Her anxiety began when she mentally ran through her sexual past while waiting for her turn to get tested. "I’d been having sex since I was 17, and since then I think I had slept with about 12 or 13 guys. A lot of them were flings and most of the encounters were unprotected. I found myself suddenly wondering about the other people those guys had slept with. Until then, the possibility of getting HIV had never really crossed my mind." Cassandra reprimanded herself with a litany of what ifs. "I had always thought of myself as a responsible person, but thinking about all those times when I didn’t use a condom made me shudder. I was just having fun—but I was careless." Her test results came out negative. Cassandra was relieved; she had dodged a bullet—this time.
Cosmo sat down with two health experts to shed some light on a few HIV misconceptions that could be putting your life at risk:
1. “But HIV is old news!”
When we hear about HIV, we probably think back to the 1980s when the virus was at its worst, taking the lives of many, mostly young gay men. More than 30 years later, HIV is on a global decline—except in a handful of countries like the Philippines. The country is grappling with a growing HIV epidemic that has been described by the World Health Organization (WHO) as one of the fastest growing in the world. It was 1984 when the country reported its first HIV case. In just the last five years, HIV cases have almost quadrupled, totaling more than 30,356. The Department of Health (DOH) forecasts that total HIV infections could reach 133,000 by 2022 if this current trend continues. HIV is commonly transmitted through sexual contact or unprotected sex, and while most of those living with HIV are men, women are at an increasing risk for HIV because of a combination of risky sexual behavior and misconceptions about how someone can get infected.
2. “But only gay guys get HIV.”
"From 2013-2015, there was a steep rise in HIV prevalence among 15-to-24-year-olds, mostly men. But we know that some of these men have both male and female sex partners—and that puts women at risk," says Dr. Genesis Samonte, who heads the DOH section that monitors HIV infection rates.
"We need to see HIV as centered around sexual behavior rather than sexual orientation," explained Ivy Kristel Hapitan, an HIV peer educator and counsellor at the Love Yourself Testing Clinic. "A lot of those I’ve counselled at the clinic are what we refer to as 'MSM' or men who have sex with men. They have sex with both men and women. Some are exploring or experimenting, others just want to," adds Hapitan.
3. “But I’m on the pill.”
When Cassandra was reviewing her sexual history, she thought of how many times she agreed not to use a condom, saying, 'It’s ok, I'm on the pill.' "I was more scared of getting pregnant than getting HIV," she recalls. Hapitan says it’s common for a lot of women to be more concerned about getting pregnant rather than with getting HIV. "Unlike an unplanned pregnancy, HIV does not seem real until we see one of our girlfriends get infected, so we think being on the pill is enough," she said. The pill does not protect against STIs, only condoms can. Hapitan also cautions that "pulling out," a favored but highly unreliable birth control method, does not provide protection from pregnancy or STIs. "You can get an STI like HIV from pre-ejaculation fluid," says Hapitan.
4. “But I’m too dyahe to ask him to wear condoms.”
Usually, women aren’t that great at having "the condom talk" with a sex partner. "Girls get stuck when it comes to insisting on condoms. We’re embarrassed; we’re worried about what the guy will think or about losing the guy if we insist on condoms. That really needs to change," Hapitan says. Condoms should be like lipstick, you never leave home without it in your kikay kit. "Always be prepared. Don’t wait for him to bring up condoms. Insist on it," she stresses.
5. “But he comes from a good family and he’s educated. He can’t possibly have HIV.”
HIV infections in urban areas like Metro Manila and Cebu have breached what the DOH and the United Nations have referred to as a "5%” threshold," which Samonte explains as "a critical mass of people who have the virus, enabling the rate of infection to grow exponentially."
HIV does not discriminate and the numbers are telling. "The physical map of the people with HIV is now big enough that any woman who is sexually active and does not use protection is potentially at risk for STIs and HIV," stresses Samonte.
6. “But I’m not a slut. I don’t sleep around that much.”
Today, dating apps like Tinder have made hooking up so much easier that sometimes "sleeping around a lot" becomes very subjective. Cassandra and her girlfriends call the easy access to a bed friend "sex on demand made possible with a simple tap on the phone."
"Before, I met guys I dated or slept with at parties, at work, or through mutual friends. Now, with these dating apps, you are literally bringing a stranger to your bed. It’s kind of great and liberating, but also kind of scary, when you think about it," she says. Samonte clarifies, "There is a common misconception that you cannot get HIV if you don’t have sex a lot. Truth us, you can get HIV even if you have unprotected sex only once."
Where can I get tested?
Free and confidential HIV Testing is available at the Love Yourself Testing Center with branches along Shaw Boulevard and Taft Avenue. Check www.loveyourself.ph or call 0915.366.5683 for more information. Love Yourself counselors can answer questions via PMs sent to their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/loveyourselfanglo.
You can also check out the Sustained Health Initiatives of the Philippines (SHIP) along Shaw Blvd. Find out more about services offered at SHIP through their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/TheSHIPFoundation.
What if my HIV test comes out positive?
Get in touch with the DOH Epidemiology Bureau through their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/HIVepicenter. They can help guide you through the next steps and link you to support groups.
* Name has been changed.
This article originally appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine’s May 2016 issue. Minor edits have been implemented by the Cosmo.ph editors.