MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines diagnosed 143 people with HIV in January — a national high — and the country’s health secretary said on Thursday she would seek more public funds to distribute condoms among high-risk groups.
The number of people diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the highest reported since the disease first surfaced in the country in 1984, said Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral.
Since the start of 2009, Cabral said, an average of about 60 Filipinos had been diagnosed as HIV-positive each month. But that figure rose sharply to 126 cases in December.
“We’re alarmed over the sudden big increase of HIV infection cases since December 2009,” Cabral said. “At the rate we are going, in three years we are going to have more than 30,000 people with HIV/AIDS in the Philippines.”
Most of the January cases were males infected through sexual contact with men, the health department said, and a majority of people infected were between ages 25 and 29.
The Philippines has had 4,424 reported HIV cases since 1984, of which 832 had developed into full-blown AIDS and 314 deaths had been reported, government figures show.
Her efforts to promote condom use in the poor Southeast Asian nation have raised the ire of conservative Roman Catholic bishops opposed to artificial contraception, however, threatening to worsen the already shaky relations between the government and the church.
“I will continue to distribute condoms as a tool to create awareness on HIV/AIDS prevention,” Cabral told Reuters, adding she would ask the government to fund the purchase of condoms for disease prevention rather than contraception.
Cabral said the government has stopped allocating funds for condoms due to church pressure. Catholic bishops helped build opposition in Congress to block a reproductive health bill that they said promoted sex education and artificial contraceptives.
The head of the influential Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, Nereo Odchimar, has criticised Cabral’s policy of encouraging condom use, saying it weakens the country’s moral fibre and destroys family life.
Odchimar has said state funds should rather be spent to fight diseases, such as tuberculosis, cancer and influenza.
Reporting by Manny Mogato; Editing by John Mair and Chris Allbritton