Surviving AIDS
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 18, 2019 - 12:00am

His mother committed suicide when he was three. His father died of a drug overdose when he was nine.

The orphan was shunted from one guardian to another in his native Zamboanga City, suffering various forms of abuse.

At 17, Billy Santo felt ready to survive on his own. He had one commodity to sell: his body.

Billy was aware of the story of sex worker Sarah Jane Salazar, the first person in the country to come out in the open about her battle against Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Billy, however, thought AIDS was confined to women who eventually succumbed to the disease. Facing The Chiefs earlier this week on One News / Cignal TV, he told us that he entered the flesh trade “because of desperation; I wanted to finish school.”

For years he suffered no symptoms of human immunodeficiency virus and enjoyed good health. He had finished his studies and had a regular job when four years ago, his hair started falling and he suffered a dramatic weight loss. One day, unable to keep his food down, he passed out and landed in a hospital’s intensive care unit.

During his three-month confinement, Billy was told that he had been asymptomatic and was already at stage four of full-blown AIDS.

He was just 23.

* * *

Billy narrated that he went into deep depression following the diagnosis that he thought was a death sentence. When he told his pregnant employer about his problem, she told him that he had to resign because her unborn child might get infected.

Then he was thrown out of his apartment and people shunned him.

“I faced a lot of discrimination,” he told The Chiefs. He stopped taking his AIDS medication, thinking that he had nothing more to live for.

But when he felt he had hit rock bottom, he decided that as long as he was alive, he would fight. “This is when I said, this is enough. I need to stand up and show people I am still a human being capable of being loved, to live and to work.”

He resumed his medication and reached out to civic support groups, learning more about his illness and becoming an advocate himself for HIV / AIDS awareness.

Today Billy is a financial adviser in an insurance firm. He dates and has a partner who knows his health condition. He travels, goes to the gym regularly and bakes fondant cakes as an online business and a hobby, giving his artistic bent free rein in shaping the confectioner’s sugar-based icing like Play-Doh.

And he’s happy that a new law was recently signed by President Duterte, recognizing the human rights of people living with HIV / AIDS. Republic Act 11166, which amended and enhanced an older law, protects people with HIV / AIDS from discrimination in employment, education, housing and even burial services.

That’s right, burial. Billy told us that he had friends who died of AIDS, who were refused embalming services because of fears that funeral parlor employees would be infected. Last year, one such cadaver was simply placed in a plastic bag and the coffin also encased in plastic, Billy told us.

Kabayan party-list Rep. Ron Salo, co-author of RA 11166, told The Chiefs that the new law explicitly provides for PhilHealth coverage for HIV / AIDS cases. It reconstitutes the 86-member AIDS Council, allowing more meetings and quicker decision making.

RA 11166 also allows teens 15 to 18 years old to undergo AIDS testing even without parental consent. Those younger than 15, who are pregnant or who engage in sexually risky behavior can do the same.

Billy says that if the law had been in place when he was 17 and selling his body to pay for his schooling, he might have engaged in less risky sexual behavior and spared himself from HIV.

* * *

Support groups are also hailing the new law, which penalizes violators with imprisonment of one to 10 years and fines of up to P500,000.

The devil, of course, is in the implementation.

Anastacio Marasigan, executive director of The Library Foundation or TLF – named after the gay bar in Malate, Manila that was popular for three decades before the party crowd moved to Makati and elsewhere – considers RA 11166 a good one, but has no illusions about its smooth implementation.

He expects resistance in allowing those legally classified as minors to undergo HIV testing without parental consent, even if it could mean the difference between life and death.

Local government units may also skirt the requirement of allotting funds for testing and treatment of people living with HIV / AIDS.

And the biggest hurdle is the lingering stigma. Both Billy and the TLF director told us that people are still worried about undergoing testing and being diagnosed with HIV / AIDS, even if the law requires the confidentiality of medical records. Violating the confidentiality is one of the criminal offenses under RA 11166.

Some simply prefer to be in denial, even if it poses the risk of failing to get timely treatment and of infecting others.

Billy understands the dread of seeing your future falling apart. But like the other youthful face of HIV / AIDS in this country – writer Wanggo Gallaga – Billy wants to emphasize that AIDS need not be a death sentence, and the sooner one is diagnosed, the better.

Now they have a law that explicitly recognizes their human rights. RA 11166 won’t change public attitudes overnight, but it’s a start.

“HIV is already manageable. Nobody really dies of AIDS anymore,” Billy said in urging those engaged in risky sexual behavior to get themselves tested.

Even when diagnosed, Billy stressed, a relatively normal life is possible.

“HIV will not define me as a person,” he said.

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