By Coco Liu
HONG KONG (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Philippines is not doing enough to tackle soaring HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men by offering greater access to HIV testing and condoms, an international rights group said on Thursday.
The prevalence of HIV among men who have sex with men in the Southeast Asian country has increased tenfold over the last five years, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report.
Last year, at least 11 cities in the Philippines reported HIV prevalence rates of more than 5 percent among men who have sex with men, the study said.
The Philippines introduced effective policies targeting the outbreak of HIV among sex workers in the 1990s, however "it has failed to adapt its prevention strategies in line with the epidemic's shifting epicenter", HRW said in a statement.
In 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) also warned the Philippines of the risk of focusing HIV prevention programs only on female sex workers, saying the virus continued to spread, unabated, among other key groups that had "little or no access to services suited to their needs".
Officials at the Philippines' Department of Health were not immediately available for comment.
HRW said national education on effective HIV prevention methods in the Catholic country were non-existent, adding that laws prohibit condom access and HIV testing to people under the age of 18 without parental permission.
"These factors are contributing to the worsening epidemic among adolescent males who engage in same-sex practices," HRW said in a statement.
The report said although the government provides free condoms at a number of public clinics, many Filipinos stay away, because the clinic mainly cater to sex workers.
There are also obstacles from local authorities, HRW said. For instance, the mayors of Balanga and Sorsogon have banned government clinics, which poor people rely on for healthcare, from procuring and distributing condoms.
HRW also said it was concerned that a planned cut of 1 billion pesos ($22 million) from the Department of Health's budget would mean fewer condoms being bought by government-run clinics.
"Reducing HIV transmission isn't rocket science," said Carlos Conde, Philippines researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"But it does require the ... government to implement an HIV prevention program and remove obstacles to condom and HIV testing access so that young Filipinos - particularly men who have sex with men - can protect themselves from an otherwise preventable illness," Conde said in a statement.
(Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)