Wednesday, February 24, 2010

DOH chief snubs Church on condoms issue

photo source: PIA

By Jerry E. Esplanada
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 03:13:00 02/24/2010
Filed Under: Government, Diseases, Health, Churches (organisations)

MANILA, Philippines—Who’s afraid of the Catholic Church?

Not the Department of Health (DoH) which, despite strong opposition from the Church, has declared that it would continue giving away condoms to “people who need them.”

The condom distribution program is one of the “very many things that, if we actually do them, is going to reduce remarkably the spread of HIV-AIDS in the Philippines,” Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral told the Inquirer.

Cabral said the incidence of HIV-AIDS (human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) in the country had acquired the proportions of “an epidemic, not just a scare.”

She said the health department’s other prevention strategy was “the education of young people, children in school, those in the workplace and Filipinos who go overseas, as well as tourists and transients.”
The DoH handed out free condoms on Valentine’s Day as part of its campaign to stem the spread of HIV, which causes AIDS. The move angered the Catholic Church, which forbids artificial birth control, including the use of condoms.

The bishops claimed that the way to stop the spread of HIV-AIDS was to follow the teachings of the Church and to respect the sanctity of the human body.

Resignation sought
In a statement posted Tuesday on the website of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, Lipa Bishop Ramon Arguelles called for Cabral’s resignation.
“It’s so immoral for someone in the government to be pushing the use of condoms, which we all know is not a deterrent to AIDS,” Arguelles said.

The statement was signed by two other bishops—Arturo Bastes of Sorsogon and Dinualdo Gutierrez of Marbel.

Arguelles said Cabral should be dismissed and should not be allowed to influence the nation’s young.

“It’s worrying because it is the morality in society, especially among the youth, that is at stake,” he said.

Agence France Presse reported that when asked to comment on the matter, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s spokesperson Gary Olivar brushed off the bishops’ call.
“We should remember that public officials should be judged by standards of public policy interest as set forth in our laws and legal precedents, and not the morality of this or that institution,” Olivar told reporters.

About 75 million Filipinos, out of a national population of 93 million, are Catholics—a legacy of the country’s Spanish colonial past.

Secular state
Commenting on the Catholic bishops’ opposition to the condom distribution program, Cabral said: “Di naman yan tago, di ba (It’s very obvious, isn’t it)? They are very open about it.”

“[But] we are not a religious state [like] Iran. We are a secular state where there is separation of Church and State,” she pointed out.

Cabral said that “while it is very important for us to find out what [the Catholic bishops] think, to cooperate with them in areas where we can be cooperating, the government is the government and must do what it thinks is right for everybody.”

She added that “not everybody in the Philippines belongs to one church,” and that the DoH was “always willing to discuss and negotiate” the matter with Catholic Church officials.

Cabral said the health department’s intensified condom distribution program was justified.

Cause for alarm
“We should be properly alarmed because as the data show, [HIV-AIDS has become] an escalating problem,” Cabral said, adding:

“From an incidence of one person diagnosed every day as having HIV-AIDS two or three years ago, last year we were diagnosing two persons [with] HIV-AIDS every day.”

During the past two months, the number of HIV-AIDS cases has risen to four persons diagnosed with the disease daily, Cabral said.

She said that according to a graph on the incidence of HIV-AIDS over the past two decades—“and I think this is why we became a little complacent about the problem”—the “doubling time” was 10 years.

“In other words, it took 10 years for the cases to double from, say, 100 to 200,” she said. But today, “the doubling time is one year,” Cabral pointed out.

With that rate, she warned, “now we have a total of 4,400 cases of HIV-AIDS known to us. At the end of the year, that would be 8,800. If the doubling rate remains stable, at the end of 2011, that’s going to be 17,600. At the end of 2011, that’s going to be 34,400.”

“We really need to do something about it,” she said.

Not in the budget
No funds were appropriated by Congress for the procurement of condoms in the health budget for 2010, according to Cabral.

Asked why, she said it appeared that the HIV-AIDS problem was “not recognized” by both policymakers and legislators.

“People were just watching,” she said.
In the absence of local funds, Cabral said the DoH would tap standby funds provided by international agencies.

She cited as an example the program in the Philippines called “Global Fund for the Control of AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria,” which amounts to “something like $215 million spread over the years.”

Private fund
The money comes from a private fund to which the likes of billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates contributes, she said.

Cabral said that while only about $85 million had been released for AIDS, “I think there’s an amount—$19 million (over P850 million)—in that fund … for the purchase of prophylactics or condoms.”
“Our national government actually signed [up for] and committed to this thing,” she said.

USAID support
For more than 30 years since the 1970s, the Philippines had relied on international organizations, mainly the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for its population program.

USAID support for the Philippine government came at $3.5 million annually, which was intended to subsidize condoms, birth control pills, and injectable and intrauterine contraceptives.

In June 2000, USAID said it was anticipating a dramatic increase in the public sector’s demand for contraceptives, and that it would cut back on the supply over a period of time because of limited funding sources.

In that year, while the Philippines’ Department of Health noted an increase in the use of contraceptives over the years, population growth remained at a steady 2.3 percent annually.

USAID stopped shipping condoms to the Philippines in 2003, birth control pills in 2007, and injectable contraceptives in 2008.

With reports from Agence France-Presse and Inquirer Research

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