MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines has a lower incidence of HIV than most of its neighbors despite sharing many of the risks, but health officials warned on Thursday that many new cases were now coming to light.
A spate of new HIV cases suggests that the Philippines' situation might be more accurately described as "hidden and growing," said Mario Villaverde, an undersecretary in the Department of Health.
"More recent statistics have already indicted a more or less abrupt change in the number of people afflicted," he said, on the sidelines of a conference on HIV/AIDS in nine Asian countries deemed to have low prevalence of the disease.
Villaverde said more infected people could be making their status known because treatments were now cheaper, although this was being verified by the health department.
"In the past two years, anti-retroviral drugs have become available for free, meaning some HIV positive people previously unknown to the authorities are now being reported," he said.
The number of Filipinos living with HIV was estimated by the United Nations at 7,000 cases in 2007, out of a total population of about 91 million.
The Philippines Department of Health however put the number of HIV patients at about 3,360 as of July, but says over 300 new cases have surfaced this year alone.
Nevertheless, the status of HIV infection in the Philippines has been classified as low prevalence, meaning that less than 0.1 percent of the population and less than 5.0 percent of people in high-risk groups were infected.
This was despite the low usage of condoms in the Catholic-majority country, where the powerful church frowns on artificial methods of contraception.
According to a 2005 study, only 13.5 percent of heterosexual Filipino males in the 15-24 age group used condoms.
India, China and Thailand all have higher incidence of HIV/AIDS than the Philippines.
Other Asian countries deemed to have low prevalence of HIV/AIDS include Bangladesh, Bhutan, Indonesia, North Korea, Fiji, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia and Sri Lanka.
"In the Philippines, the low partner exchange, the frequency or the number of male clients (of prostitutes) frequenting other partners, the contributory factor of circumcision, those are some of the conditions that have somehow kept the HIV prevalence low," said Bai Bagaso, UNAIDS representative for the country.
"But what we're saying is it does mask the threat because it might not reveal the changes in the way HIV is spreading."
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and David Fox)