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High-ranking UN official pushes HIV response commitment during Pride Month

MANILA — United Nations Assistant Secretary-General Christine Stegling visited the Philippines from June 18 to 19, 2024 to strengthen HIV response partnerships and commitment. 

Stegling, who is also the deputy executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), aimed to secure the government’s renewed commitment to expand HIV services, strengthen combination prevention programs and community-led responses, address stigma and discrimination, and develop a sustainability plan. 

This agenda is especially urgent as the country has the fastest-growing HIV epidemic in the Asia-Pacific region. New infections increased by five times (418%) since 2010, and in 2022 there were three new infections every hour, or 24,000 new infections annually. 

“There is a real need to strengthen HIV prevention and treatment services in the Philippines, but also to talk about sex and sexuality with young people in all their diversity,” Ms Stegling said. “Many young people are getting infected and dying. So there is an issue of young people engaging in unprotected sex.”

The visit coincided with the country’s celebration of Pride Month, which aims to amplify issues and advocacy causes that center on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) community. Males who have sex with males and transgender people are among the “key population” groups who are vulnerable to HIV but without adequate access to HIV services. 

“This visit was an opportunity for us to express the critical need for more community-strengthening investments and interventions so we can be fully capable of leading the response. We ought to build a community capacity roadmap to set directions for a community-led response,” said Magdalena Robinson, executive director of Cebu United Rainbow LGBTIQ+ Sector Incorporated.

In last year’s State of the Nation address, Philippine President, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr, declared HIV a top health priority, as reflected in the country’s 8-Point Health Agenda. More than ever, a whole-of-nation approach is needed to mount an impactful HIV response.

Stegling met Secretary of Health, Dr. Teodoro Herbosa, to explore strategic directions and the development of a Sustainability Roadmap to fully fund the National Strategic HIV Plan to End AIDS by 2030. 

“This visit is timely as we gather development partners and technical experts to share with Department of Health innovations and good practices from other countries, that can be potentially adopted in our local setting. This collaboration is very much welcome to scale up the country’s HIV response,” Dr Herbosa said.

She also met with legislator Geraldine Roman, a principal author of the Anti-Discrimination Bill in the House of Representatives, to advocate for more funding for HIV prevention and the institutionalization of transgender health services. 

“There is an urgency to pass the Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, Gender Expression, or Sex Characteristics (SOGIESC) Equality Bill to provide protection and equal rights and access to health services including HIV and gender-affirming care for transgender people. It is imperative to eliminate gender and HIV-related stigma and discrimination if we want to end the AIDS epidemic in the country,” Ms Roman said.

Through a visit to the SAIL Clinic, a community-led facility providing HIV services, she gained insights into the strategies used and challenges faced by communities providing HIV services. Stegling also met with representatives of community-led organizations and key population groups. This was an opportunity to explore the needs of the community and for UNAIDS to indicate how it can support the call of the community for dedicated and increased investments in young key population interventions and community systems strengthening. Stegling also called for increased community advocacy for the development of the country’s Sustainability Roadmap on HIV.  

“The discussion on sustainability was incredibly insightful, offering valuable examples from other community-led service providers in different countries. Community-led organizations play a critical role in expanding HIV service delivery but are mostly funded by donors. Hence, the government should consider mechanisms to finance community-led response to sustain its efforts,” said Earl Patrick Penabella, SAIL Clinics’ program manager.

She then met with the UN Country Team, led by Resident Coordinator Gustavo Gonzalez, to rally support and increase investments from other UN agencies for HIV programs.


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