By Michelle Anne P. Soliman
ENZO, Gab, Chuchay, and Luis join a support group on social media under their online alter egos. Enzo starts a group chat and sets a date to meet with the group’s other members. At a coffee shop one day, they all get together because of something called “Pete.”
The four young men are characters in the latest book by Segundo Matias, Jr., the author the Moymoy Lulumboy series, Mga Batang Poz — “poz” being slang for HIV positive.
The young adult novel confronts misconceptions about the disease by illustrating the lives of young characters living with HIV-AIDS — acquiring the disease, undergoing diagnosis, joining online support groups, revealing their situation to their families, and undergoing medication.
The book’s release is timely — the HIV/AIDS and Art Registry of the Philippines’ data for March reported that there were 912 new HIV antibody seropositive individuals, 31% who were 15 to 24 years old “at the time of testing.”
As Dr. Rossana A. Ditangco, DOH-RITM AIDS research group head, wrote in her message in the novel: “Bawat araw, may sampung tao na nada-diagnose na mayroong HIV. Sa sampung ito, dalawa ay mga kabataang nasa edad labinlima hanggang dalawampu’t apat. Kung hindi mapipigilan ang pag-laganap nito, hindi imposible na sa susunod na panahon ay mas tumaas pa ang bilang ng mga kabataang humaharap, hindi lamang sa pagkakasakit, kundi maging sa social stigma na dala ng HIV (Every day, there are 10 people who are diagnosed with HIV. Out of the 10, two are children aged 15 to 24. If the spread of the disease is not prevented, it is likely possible in the coming years that there will be a rise in the number of children facing, not only the disease, but also the social stigma brought by HIV).
“We have to take note that the year they were tested was not the same period they were afflicted with HIV,” Dr. Ditangco said in Filipino during the book’s launch in September at the Precious Pages Events Center in Quezon City. As an example, she pointed out that if an 18-year-old was diagnosed with HIV, the patient may have caught the disease at a younger age.
Mr. Matias’ thesis adviser at UP Diliman, professor Eugene Evasco, suggested that he write a book about AIDS for young people. The young adult novel served as the author’s thesis for his masteral degree in Malikhaing Pagsulat (Creative Writing in Filipino).
At a clinic where he was doing research for the book, Mr. Matias learned that there were patients as young as 12 who were diagnosed positive with the disease.
“When I learned about the demographics and the number of people who are afflicted with HIV, that pushed me [to write],” Mr. Matias said in the vernacular.
Mr. Matias considered changing his byline to J. M. Matias, citing concern over his “branding” as a children’s book writer.
“But then again, you’re fighting the stigma. Bakit ako mismo matatakot? So, nilagay ko na talaga ’yung name [ko] (Why should I be afraid myself? So, I decided to use my full name),” he said.
Mr. Evasco said that the country is blessed to have writers who are brave enough to write and educate readers about HIV. “Our society is blessed today because we have books that will guide readers and give a positive depiction not only about being gay, but also about being poz,” he said in Filipino.
Dr. Ditangco said that the book serves as an alternative learning tool not only for young readers, but also for parents and teachers.
“At present, one of the limitations in HIV education is that it is taught like heath or science. It is not taught to influence the values and behavior of a young person. That is why it is important that materials like these are available not only to affect our emotions, but also to teach the reader,” she said in the vernacular.
Despite what the conservative sector of society may think, Mr. Matias is ready to share this story with everyone.
“I cannot say that they (the conservatives) are ready, but since I have written it, I am,” he said.
Mga Batang Poz is available at Precious Pages retail outlets, National Book Store, the Pandayan book shop, and leading books stores nationwide for P300. For inquiries contact, firstname.lastname@example.org.