MANILA -- Twenty-nine-year-old call center agent Kiko (not his real name) has been battling human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) for two years now. While he has experienced difficult times because of the virus, he says he is living a normal life today just like before he acquired it.

"Normal naman pero nagbago ang lifestyle ko kasi hindi na ako nag-iinom at yosi kasi after all ng naranasan kong hirap sa ospital ayoko nang maulit (It's normal but my lifestyle has changed because I no longer drink and smoke because I don't want to experience again the hardships I had in the hospital)," he told the Philippine News Agency (PNA) in an interview.

It was July 2015, when he first noticed the manifestation of HIV in his body. He said he experienced unexplainable loss of appetite, fatigue, and lack of energy because of the disease.

"That time kahit one cup hindi ko maubos, nanghihina nako, mabilis mapagod kahit train station hindi ko kaya umakyat (I cannot finish even a cup of rice. I'm weak, get tired easily and I cannot even climb up the train station)," he said.

Dr. Aileen Mallari, chairperson of the HIV/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) Core Team (HACT) of Tondo Medical Center, told the PNA that HIV can be acquired in three ways: oral, anal, or vaginal sex with an HIV-positive individual without the use of condoms; receiving HIV contaminated blood products through blood transfusion or HIV contaminated organs through organ transplantation; and through pregnancy where an HIV-positive mother could transmit the virus through gestation, birth, or breastfeeding.

The four liquids in the body of a PLHIV with the highest amount of HIV are breastmilk, blood, seminal fluid, and vaginal fluid, she said.

Mallari said a person usually would not feel any symptoms or problems at the start of the successful entry of HIV in the body, or HIV infection.

"Kapag ang immune system ng taong may HIV infection ay bumagsak, dito na kumakapit ang iba't ibang komplikasyon tulad ng tuberculosis, pneumonia, diarrhea at cancer, ito na ang stage na tinatawag na AIDS (When the immune system of a person with HIV infection drops, it is where complications like tuberculosis, pneumonia, diarrhea, and cancer happen, this stage is called AIDS)," she said.

According to the latest data of the Department of Health (DOH), HIV-infected people in the Philippines have reached 60,207 as of October 2018, since the HIV infection was first recorded in January 1984.

Of this number, majority or 53,815 are male.

Men having sex with men comprise 30,308, or more than half of the 53,815 HIV cases among males.

She said most of the recorded cases are aged between 25 to 34 years old, with the National Capital Region (NCR) having the highest number of persons with HIV.

Mallari attributed the rise of HIV cases among the youth to lack of appropriate education about the virus and the disease, or even the promiscuous behavior of young people.

"May mga client kami na alam nila kung ano at paano ito nakukuha pero di pa din po nila pinoproteksyunan ang mga sarili nila (We have clients who knew how they acquired the disease but still don't protect themselves at all)," she added. 

Initially, Kiko said he did not disclose his health condition to his mother as he gets treated with the help of friends. However, he said his mom likely knows about everything because of his serious weight loss due to diarrhea.

"Iba kasi ang pagpayat ng HIV positive eh, tuyot parang nagmumukhang zombie. May kababata ako na na-diagnose din a year before me kaya nung nasa denial stage pa ako, nagre-research na pala ang mom ko about HIV symptoms. Kaya ayun alam na niya nagiging strong lang siya (An HIV positive abruptly loses weight and looks shriveled, more like a zombie. I have a childhood friend who was diagnosed a year before me, so when I was still in the denial stage, my mom was already researching about HIV symptoms. So, she knew about me but just being strong)," he said.

Apart from quitting drinking and smoking, he makes sure that he takes his medicines regularly.

"Okay na ako sa (I'm okay with the) food since my appetite enhances the anti-retroviral medicine that helps our immune system to regenerate, to keep us healthy again to fight bad bacteria or viruses. I'm okay now, my CD4 count is 547 already," he said.

CD4 count refers to the number of CD4 cells in the body. These are a type of lymphocyte or white blood cell, which plays an important role in the immune system.

Mallari said that people with HIV will forever have HIV in their bodies. Same with the anti-retroviral drugs or therapy (ART) they take to weaken the virus in their bodies and protect their immune system to prevent complications.

"Walang eksaktong bilang ng taon ang buhay ng PLHIV. Sa katunayan maari itong mabuhay katulad ding ng isang taong walang HIV basta mapanatili nya na malakas ang kanyang resistensya, maganda at masayang pananaw sa buhay, at ang pag-inom sa tamang oras ng ART. Maari siyang mabuhay nang walang komplikasyon (There is no exact number of years when it comes to the mortality of PLHIVs. In fact, they can live like a person without HIV as long as he keeps his immune system strong, have a positive and happy outlook in life, and taking ART regularly. He can live a life without complications)," she said.

Mallari said the government ensures to provide free medicines and guidance to PLHIVs through the HIV/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) Core Team (HACT) in every hospital. She added there are many non-government organizations today which provide care for them.

"Yes, that is very helpful, but I hope there'll be more doctors to help us because we need to wait in line for almost six hours for check-up and ART refills. Ten being the highest, my score for DOH is five because, yes, we get free medicines, but there's a lot that can be improved," Kiko told the PNA.

While DOH provides HIV/AIDS screening, testing, and ARTs for free, Mallari said many still do not avail such help in treatment hubs because they still cannot accept the fact that they have acquired the virus.

Taking each day as a blessing, Kiko says there is no room for self-pity for PLHIVs like him.

"It will not change the fact that I'm already HIV positive, I'm trying to spend my days doing what I really love so when the time comes. About life’s lessons, always listen to your mom, it's true that you regret things in the end," he added.

Kiko encouraged his fellow PLHIVs to be extra careful when meeting other people or having sex to avoid spreading HIV infection, which could kill people physically and emotionally.

"If you're into male to male relationship, be faithful to your partners. Safe sex, and at least study the case to avoid problems," he said. (PNA)