A few weeks ago, my boyfriend—a public health practitioner—picked me up from work. I had just hopped into his car when he casually mentioned that he was going to be on radio the next day—a morning show had invited him to talk about the new HIV and AIDS law. What?! I exclaimed. That’s awesome! I was so excited for him! I’ve always been so proud of him for his dedication to the Philippine healthcare system. I was also ecstatic because he was given a huge platform to educate and spread awareness.
But on our drive home, I realized that I’d never taken an HIV test, even though I supported the campaign against HIV stigma and discrimination. I even encouraged other people not to be ashamed to get tested. After all, we get all sorts of health-related tests done: breast exams, eye exams, urine tests, etc—so why be ashamed of an HIV test, right?
“But why have I not taken it?” I asked myself. Then began a series of monologues inside my head. “This isn’t right. I have to practice what I preach!” I knew I wanted to fully support the advocacy, so I decided that I wanted (read: needed) to have a test done. “Very well then. I’ll take the test. Tonight. And while I’m at it, I’ll educate myself more on the issue, too.
My boyfriend was very supportive. We glanced at our phones and saw “9PM” flash on our screens. Uh-oh, may bukas pa kayang clinic? We Googled available testing centers in the area. I was surprised to find out that some were even open until 11PM.
We first visited a government clinic along EDSA, but unfortunately, their laboratory closed just before we arrived. The next available testing site nearest us was Love Yourself in Welcome Rotonda. When we got to the area, we had a hard time locating the center—there were no huge, flashing signboards that directed us where to go. (And then I realized that was a good thing—this maintained privacy and made everything confidential, making people feel safer. Secure.)
We parked the car and walked down the street to find the testing site. A couple of steps later, we finally came across a black gate with the words “Love Yourself” discreetly painted on one side.
I had no idea why, but I felt super nervous before stepping inside. There’s just something about clinics and testing sites that frighten me—the thought of blood, needles, and fluorescent lights always gives me shivers. I took a quick breath before entering the site—but I was completely surprised with what I saw. Love Yourself didn’t look like a testing site—it looked like a cafe! And yes, they serve free coffee, too!
The place reminded me of a chic New York apartment
Yes, they serve FREE coffee—hindi 3-in-1, guys ha. As in legit na kape. Espresso ganon! Wahaha.
As soon as we stepped inside the “cafe”, we were greeted with warm, friendly volunteers. Their soothing aura took all my fears and tension away.
According to one of the volunteers, each Love Yourself branch has its own theme. The Welcome Rotonda branch looks like a cafe, while there’s another site that looks like a spa. The founders of Love Yourself made sure that each center will look cozy and relaxing, so that people would be more comfortable during their stay. Way to make people feel at ease! :)
Everyone in Love Yourself was very accommodating and professional. I must admit I was pretty nervous—but I felt no judgment in the atmosphere.
They handed me a unicorn pen and a piece of paper to fill out—the back-to-back sheet asked for my personal information (age, birthday, educational attainment, etc), as well as other related details like my gender identity, sexual preference, sexual history, etc. I was comfortable answering each item because I knew my information would be kept confidential. Again, it was a judgment-free zone.
After filling out the form, we waited for a volunteer to call our assigned number—they didn’t call us by our names to ensure privacy and security.
After my number (“22”) was called up, I was directed to a closed room, where I would have my test done. Before getting my finger pricked, the volunteer counselor read my information and asked me more questions. Afterwards, he took out the testing kit to get my blood sample. I was so relieved to know that they used the pricking method—I have this irrational fear of needles, and I, a grown woman, would literally CRY whenever someone would try to extract blood from my veins. Through pricking, the process is made easier, quicker, and thankfully, less painful. In fact, I did not feel any pain at all!
Watch the video! HAHAHAHA!
After getting my blood sample, we had to wait for 15 minutes for the results to come out. While waiting, the counsellor educated me about HIV. Here are the things I learned that evening, as well as other bits of information that I also learned from my boyfriend. Knowledge is power, guys! :)
1. Having HIV is NOT a death-sentence. In fact, an HIV positive person can live a NORMAL life as long as they take their HIV medicines!
HIV is a virus that can weaken your immune system—however, an HIV positive person can take maintenance medicine to prevent this from happening. One will live a perfectly normal life if they take their HIV medicines daily. Failure to take maintenance medicines will eventually result in weakened immune systems, leading to AIDS. (AIDS is the condition where the person is sick from many infections, caused when HIV has already caused serious damage to the immune system.)
2. On that note, the maintenance medicine for HIV is FREE for ALL!
In the same way that getting yourself tested for HIV is FREE, maintenance medicine to suppress the virus is also provided by the government for FREE. If someone is found to be HIV positive, they can simply head to the nearest government Social Hygiene Clinic to enrol for antiretroviral treatment (ART). Some NGOs and private clinics also have treatment hubs where you can get ART, though they may charge for the services. Either way, confidentiality is assured at every step of the process, and the health workers in the HIV program are consistently client centered.
3. HIV does not have any symptoms—that’s why it’s important to have yourself checked regularly.
HIV does not have any warning signs. A person may even be HIV positive for ten years without knowing or even seeing any symptoms! The only way to find out if a person is HIV positive is to take the test. It’s important for people to get tested, so that if ever they turn out to be positive, they can take maintenance medicines right away.
4. HIV can be transmitted through the ff: (1) semen, (2) vaginal fluid, (3) blood, and (4) breast milk.
A common misconception is that HIV can be transmitted through saliva, holding hands, sharing utensils, or using the same toilet facilities. That is not correct! You can kiss—or even make out!—with a person living with HIV and you will still not get the virus. It is only transmitted through semen, vaginal fluid, blood extraction, and breast milk. Sometimes, an HIV positive mother can also transfer HIV to her baby.
5. Here’s what you can do to prevent yourself from getting HIV:
If you are sexually active, always wear condoms while doing the deed. One will also need to use lubricant to avoid abrasions.
Do not brush your teeth before giving your partner oral. Sometimes, brushing your teeth can cause abrasions in your mouth, which fluids like semen or vaginal fluid can come in contact with.
For health workers, be careful when handling needles. People who inject drugs should never share needles, too!
After waiting for 15 minutes, I got the results back. One line indicates that a person is HIV negative. Meanwhile, getting two lines means they are reactive—they will need to undergo an additional test (again, for free) to confirm whether they are HIV positive.
There you have it, guys! :) Getting checked for HIV isn’t scary after all. I am glad I finally did it. Together, let’s continue to educate ourselves and others. Just like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, HIV is nothing to be ashamed of. Let’s promote awareness and healthy practices so that together, we can finally Stop the Stigma.