For people living with HIV, access is the biggest hurdle to getting vaccinated against COVID-19, not hesitancy, advocates said, as they called on authorities to make sure that long-running stigma does not influence how the jabs are administered.
Fear that their status will be unneccesarily divulged, some people with HIV choose to wait longer for a vaccine, or those that are provided by their employers, instead of getting one now as part of the A3 priority group or persons with co-morbidities.
Love Yourself, an advocacy group for HIV-AIDS awareness coordinated a vaccination drive for people living with HIV out of Mandaluyong City even for those who don't live there. This erases the fear that they will be made to line up for jabs with signages that identify them as having HIV, said Angelo Ramos, executive director of another advocacy group, Sustained Health Initiatives or SHIP.
"The biggest problem is access, not willingness" to get a COVID vaccine, Ramos told the third session of the HIV and COVID-19 webinar of UP Manila and Brown University.
People with HIV are at 30% higher risk of developing severe COVID if they are not vaccinated, Ramos said, citing studies.
"Naturally, people with HIV hide their status for fear of being discriminated," said Amara Quesada, executive director of Achieve NGO that provides free legal assistance to people with HIV. That concern is heightened for those whose status is unknown to their families, she said.
Citing the Philippine HIV Policy Act, Quesada said, "The law does not prohibit asking about HIV status. The law is saying, if you were to provide your HIV status, that information needs to be protected.
In the context of the COVID vaccinations, a person's HIV status should be used only to determine whether they qualify for A3 priority jabs and should not be used as gossip fodder, she said.
"Ibang usapan yung chismosa lang. Ang kakasuhan natin hindi yung nagtanong sa yo, ang kakasuhan natin yung nagchismis sa yo," she said.
Under the law, a person can be required to disclose his or her HIV status only when it is material to a court case. The person's HIV status cannot be used as basis to charge higher medical fees, she said.
Violators can be punished by imprisonment of six months to five years and penalties of P50,000 to P500,000.