Editorial: Giving voice to people living with HIV

·3 min read

A JOURNALIST trained to write about other people has a lifetime of professional reticence keeping him or her from tackling a personal essay, specially one that demands searing self-examination and segues into unanticipated, uncomfortable truths.

A pioneering digital journalist in Cebu and former Manila online bureau chief at SunStar Philippines, Gem A. Cabreros ended 11 years of silence when he posted on his personal blog and reposted on Facebook the essay, “I’m HIV-Positive and This is My Story”.

Diagnosed in 2010 as having human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), Cabreros underwent a journey of extreme lows and infrequent peaks that he found too harrowing to relive until inward conflicts and personal decisions coalesced in December 2020 into a desire to share a story that may help other people living with HIV (PLHIV).

The essay uploaded on gemcab.home.blog and Facebook illuminates a subject obscured by predispositions on homosexuality and morality that prevent a rational and humane approach to dealing with HIV as an area of public health, human rights, and health communication; thus, deserving access to information, open discussions, and sustained assistance and support.

Cabreros’s concerns are relevant and illuminating not only for PLHIV but for non-PLHIV because families, friends, health professionals, and communities are the networks crucial for assisting vulnerable persons and PLHIV surmount social stigma preventing many from seeking HIV testing and accessing the antiretroviral treatment that the World Health Organization (WHO) declares as essential for the PLHIV to stay healthy and prevent them from spreading the virus to their partners.

The coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic and consequent community quarantine, travel restrictions, and recession have further complicated the lives of the PLHIV needing uninterrupted access to Art. “Clinical studies clearly show that interruptions in Art can have dangerous long-term consequences” to the PLHIV, the WHO posted in an article uploaded on euro.who.int.

In his Feb. 26 essay, Cabreros credits a close friend who privately messaged him after Cabreros posted on social media about recurring bouts with pneumonia. Although Cabreros is knowledgeable about HIV, he said he knowingly courted risk through behaviors, such as sex with strangers.

“I thank my close friend, who passed away a few years back, for prodding me to take an HIV test,” writes Cabreros. “I would not have known my status if it weren’t for him.”

Unswerving personal support sustains Cabreros in a process that takes a physical and psychic toll on him, from the pre-test counseling and rapid HIV test at the government Manila Social Hygiene Clinic to the confirmatory test at the San Lazaro Hospital and enrolment in the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) HIV treatment hub for baseline tests.

While a priest he made a confession to made Cabreros feel that he “was to blame for what happened and (that he was) to repent,” he drew on a refusal to pass judgment and commitment of support coming from his partner (who joined Cabreros during the rapid test and tested non-reactive), his sisters, close friends, and health professionals, including the Philippine Mental Health Association for counseling.

As he wrote in his essay, the pandemic brought challenges and opportunities. RITM, prioritizing Covid-19 tests, suspended then resumed tests for the PLHIV. Cabreros joined a legal literacy online training and webinars on HIV.

On Oct. 19, 2020, Cabreros revealed on social media that he is a PLHIV. “I didn’t want to live in fear,” he wrote. “I also wanted to inspire fellow PLHIVs to never give up the fight against the virus, and help in efforts to eliminate HIV stigma and discrimination.”

Recently hired to give paralegal assistance to the PLHIV and other key affected populations, Cabreros finds a “new purpose in life”: “help others.”