|Photo from Aktionsbündnis gegen Aids through a Creative Commons license|
It was Christmas dinner two years ago, in 2010, among my gay friends. I just came back from an expat assignment in the US, and was greatly enjoying the uniquely Filipino way of celebrating the cheery season. Towards the end of that dinner, one of my close friends came up to me saying he wanted to speak with me in private.
The two of us went outside the restaurant, and in a dark corner of the parking lot he told me he wanted me to be among the first to know. Early that month, he had himself tested for HIV, and found out he was positive. I was so shocked that no words came out of my mouth, I remember just giving him the tightest hug I could, my mind blank, my heart racing, not knowing what to say or do next. He was my first close friend who came out to me as HIV-positive.
Little did I know that it was just the beginning. The following year was worse. Friends started to literally disappear. One weekend, a friend would be with us, partying. The next week or so, he’s nowhere to be found. The following month we hear he’s in the hospital with pneumonia, and the next thing we see are RIPs on his Facebook wall.
That year, 2011, this thing happened to not just one friend. Not just two. Not even just three. By the end of that year, eight of my friends mysteriously succumbed to what I would later on find out as complications of HIV/AIDS. I never attended so many funerals in a year. Young, energetic, mostly gay men, dropping like flies. It was shaking me to the core.
Meanwhile, in local news, the Department of Health would regularly release statistics about the explosive growth of the number of newly diagnosed people living with HIV in the Philippines. More than 80% were among, as they call us, “men who have sex with men.” It was mirroring what was happening among my friends. According to statistics, one person in the Philippines gets infected by HIV every three hours. I felt I had to do something.
In June of 2011, following the scare of too many friends dying on me mysteriously, I took my very first HIV test. The experience changed me profoundly and I resolved to help more people, starting with those around me, to access HIV testing and counseling services.
Together with a handful of friends, all private individuals, we formed a volunteer group which we called “Love Yourself”. We got ourselves trained to conduct HIV education and counseling, and in partnership with government clinics providing HIV testing, we brought our friends, and friends of friends.
To date, we have provided HIV education and testing to more than 2,000 people. This with no external funding, just partnerships and a whole lot of Facebook and Twitter. And yes, we all have day jobs, so we normally do this “Love Yourself” work on weekends only.
We started with six volunteers, and after only about 18 months, we have grown to more than 100 trained peer educators and HIV counselors. We do not have a reliable source of funds but we do get by especially because we have great partner organizations, both from the private and public sector.
The HIV epidemic has claimed the lives of my friends, and in the next few years, I know it will continue to do so. This does not, however, stop me from hoping to see the epidemic taper off the way it is doing so in more developed countries now. I am hopeful because of what I have seen we at “Love Yourself” were able to do in such a short period. I am hopeful because there are other similar groups here in the Philippines with the same goal. We shall do what we can, act large by collaborating, collecting and aligning small efforts here and there. As we celebrate the World AIDS Day 2012, I hold on to this hope. One day, together, we’ll beat this thing too.
More information: 2012 Global AIDS Response Progress Report – Philippines (pdf) | UNAIDS Regional Fact Sheet 2012 – Asia and the Pacific (pdf) | UNAIDS Global Report 2012 (pdf)