Image via US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/CC BY 2.0/Flickr

By Brontë H. Lacsamana 

AS METRO MANILA enters another lockdown, nonprofit organization LoveYourself (LY) is ready to deliver life-saving care to people living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), armed with the lessons it learned in 2020. 

“We were able to create a formula of services,” said Dr. Ronivin G. Pagtakhan, LY founder and executive director, in an interview with BusinessWorld. “We just need to scale it up in a form that would reach everyone. We can’t just sustain the services we have right now.”  

To keep HIV testing going even during the pandemic, an ambulatory and mobile laboratory service called acXess by LoveYourself provides confirmatory testing, hematology, serology, and other lab services. When restrictions allow, LY opens slots for face-to-face check-ups, boosted by its staff getting fully vaccinated this March. 

A courier service, Xpress by LoveYourself, gives its drivers gender sensitivity and confidentiality training before sending them out to deliver antiretroviral medications to clients every three months.  

“We were able to make things a little bit easier for our clients,” said Dr. Pagtakhan. The pandemic pushed LY to offer telemedicine, and testing and treatment delivery via courier service after foot traffic in its community centers in Metro Manila, Bacoor, and Cebu City dropped to an alarming zero from more than 250 daily because of restrictions. 

LY tests 50,000 people for HIV every year and treats 7,300 HIV-positive clients regularly. In December 2020, the Department of Health released a study with the Philippine National AIDS Council showing an average of 21 new HIV cases being reported daily. Of the 735 confirmed cases in October 2020, 96% were male.  

“If you want to curb the epidemic, you have to target the most cases. The Philippines has always had a program for HIV; it’s just that it was too general,” said Dr. Pagtakhan, who founded LY a decade ago to address that HIV is a concentrated epidemic among MSMs (males having sex with males). 

He is also advocating for a prevention package for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections under the Philippine Health Insurance Corp., similar to the government’s tuberculosis program, which supports even those who are just at risk to develop the illness. “Now, the perception is just curative,” he said of the existing HIV package. 

Asked what he’s learned over the 10 years he’s been running LY, Dr. Pagtakhan replied: “The challenge is confronting yourself and looking really at self-awareness and self-worth. Some people just throw themselves because that’s the only way they feel accepted, loved, or liked, which is why they engage in risky sexual behaviors … If there’s a message I want people to hear, it’s that sex is not bad. Sex is in fact good, but you need to be always safer.”