by Ana Santos, Xu Lingui
MANILA, Nov. 30 (Xinhua) -- Working as a seafarer for 10 years, Mario has traveled the world and visited far-fetched places like Africa and Brazil. It required him to be away from the Philippines for long periods at a time, but it was with this job that Mario was able to provide for his wife, Jinky and his two small children.
It was also with this job, 38-year-old Mario contracted the HIVvirus.
Mario is one of the more than 3,000 registered HIV/AIDS cases in the Philippines, considered a low-incidence country with national adult prevalence at less than 0.1 percent of the 90 million population.
But as a Filipino seafarer, Mario represents a growing trend that the country's modern-day heroes -- the 8 million overseas Filipino workers whose remittance is key to the country's economic growth -- are falling into the grips of this deadly virus.
"While on the boat, on the way to West Africa, I met an accident. We were trying to fix the hydraulic jack when I was hit by a pipe and my upper abdomen was cut. I was declared 'unfit to work' and flew back to the Philippines for an operation," Mario told Xinhua in a small clinic in Manila that offers counseling to people living with HIV/AIDS.
Mario said in the hospital when the epidemiologist asked his relatives to temporarily leave the room, he was suggested a HIV anti-body test.
"I wasn't affronted or shocked by the suggestion of the doctor." Mario said. "But I was too weak to object and desperate to just find out what was wrong."
When the lab result was read to him three weeks later, Mario said he felt his world had just collapsed.
A BIG BLOW TO FAMILY
Mario traced that he may have contracted the virus during an unprotected sexual encounter in Brazil. Afraid that he may have passed on the virus to his wife, he told her about his condition and suggested that she be tested as well.
"I was angry when he told me. At that time, there was not a lot of information about HIV. It was the disease of prostitutes and gay men -- not married couples," Jinky recalled.
But she said she couldn't stay angry for very long because Mario was so thin and so sick. "I was afraid that he would die. More than his indiscretion, I became concerned about the welfare of our children. They were too young to lose their father and our family were very dependent on his earnings as a seafarer," she added.
And it is the reason why Jinky couldn't bring herself to the lab room at the first place.
"I just assumed that I already had the virus. I didn't want to know. I might not be able to work if I tested positive. Besides, it might mean that we would both have to get medication and treatment. These were possibilities that we simply couldn't afford," she recalled.
It was only in 2007, three years after Mario was diagnosed, when Jinky finally subjected herself to an HIV anti-body test. When her test results came, she was not surprised that it was positive.
There are 5 million people in Asia living with HIV/AIDS with around 400,000 people being newly infected every year, according to the statistics released by Uniting the world against AIDS (UNAIDS). Health officials of UN agencies said over all Asia, stories similar to Mario and Jinky are repeating almost everyday.
Jacques Jeugmans, a health official of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) regional and sustainable development division, said a recent ADB study indicated that HIV infection in Asia, while it will not have a macro-economic, social impact as in Africa, will clearly have a significant impact on the house-hold level.
"In some countries and regions, this will significantly undermine the government's poverty reduction efforts," he said.
MODERN DAY HEROES TO VICTIMS
Like Mario, many Filipinos work overseas as seafarers, nurses and domestic helpers, to support their families back at home through remittances.
The money they send back is a major drive of domestic consumption and contributes roughly 10 percent of the country's annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth.
Overseas Filipinos sent back 14.4 billion U.S. dollars in remittances in 2007 and the Philippine central bank expects the figure to swell to 15.7 billion U.S. dollars. Just like Mario, the overseas Filipino workers are the bread-earners of the country which can not afford to see them crushed by illness.
But statistics has found the modern day heroes are among the most vulnerable groups to HIV/AIDS in the Philippines.
Returning workers are found to account for 35 percent of the infection cases in the Philippines, according to the 2008 report of the Philippine National AIDS Council.
And of all reported cases among returning Filipino workers, seafarers have the highest incidence. Out of a total of 800,000 seafarers around the world, about 350,000 were from the Philippines. Long way from home coupled with the nature of high sea jobs being hard and depressed forces men to seek fun on-shore, and more than often without proper protection.
But it should also be noted that, unlike the general public, outgoing Filipino workers are required to undergo HIV screening for employment purposes. Many returned workers were only diagnosed HIV positive upon their departure for re-deployment overseas.
In 2007, the World Health Organization and the Department of Health estimated that there could be 7,490 people living with HIV in the country, up from the 6,000 figure projected in 2002.
Unprotected sexual intercourse is found to be the predominating mode of transmission in the Philippines, accounting for 86 percent of the infection.
In a country where the Catholic Church has significant influence in political and social life, the use of artificial methods of contraception, including condom, is not so widely promoted. Condoms are hard to be found in stores other than pharmacies and a family planning bill, which includes the advocacy of condom usage, has been shelved and debated in the Congress for years.
From the "low and slow" description in the 1990s until 2004, the Department of Health now acknowledges the possibility that the HIV situation is "hidden and growing."
But UN health officials interviewed by Xinhua mostly agreed that the HIV/AIDS won't become a grave threat to the Philippines in near future.
Massimo Ghidinelli, WHO Regional Advisor on HIV/AIDS and STI, said factors like the relatively lower ratio of Filipino men who seek prostitution, the fact that most Filipino men are circumcised, and the availability of services to protect sex workers from sexually transmitted diseases keep the HIV situation under checks.
"The Philippines is doing quite good." Ghidinelli said the robust civil society he witnessed in the Philippines that coordinates with government agencies to reach out to the vulnerable and high-risk groups is also a crucial factor to keep the epidemic at bay.
Mario and Jinky said as people living with HIV they also joined various NGO and government initiatives to spread information about HIV and awareness about proper prevention methods.
Mario now conducts government required pre-departure orientation seminars to Filipinos who are about to be deployed overseas.
In these seminars, he talks about the decade of his life that he spent as a seafarer and gives an honest account of the factors that make seafarers vulnerable to contracting HIV.
Jinky, who volunteers at a group called Babae Plus (Women Plus)for females living with HIV/AIDS, also shares her own experience and tells other seafarers' housewives the importance of safe sex even among married couples.
The couple hopes that their testimony will make others avoid high risk situation and their sharing will give others a better understanding of the disease and instill in them compassion and empathy, rather than pity and judgment towards those living with HIV/AIDS.