Miss Universe 2015 Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach is a woman of her word. It was on a Las Vegas stage where Pia first said that if she were to win the crown, she would “use her voice to influence the youth and raise awareness for HIV.” She signed off her message with the now famous “confidently beautiful with a heart” tagline.
Two years later, Pia is the new UNAIDS HIV Goodwill Ambassador for Asia and the Pacific leading the charge in raising HIV awareness among young people and calling for zero discrimination among people living with HIV (PLHIV) and key populations such as men who have sex with men and transgender people.
“Many young people still do not have the skills and knowledge to protect themselves from HIV,” said UNAIDS Director Steve Kraus. “With her huge popularity among young fans and immense following on social media, Pia will amplify our efforts and help end the AIDS epidemic in the region.”
Having Pia as the HIV Goodwill Ambassador gives us a jolt of momentum that we need. According to the UNAIDS, the Philippines has the fastest growing HIV epidemic in Asia and the Pacific. The latest figures from the Department of Health Epidemiology Bureau show that as of February 2017, there are 41,315 PLHIV in the Philippines, over half of this number are from 25-34 years old.
An estimated 27 people get infected every day. In February this year, about three people every day died of an AIDS-related complication. These numbers look like they came out of the 1980s when little was known about HIV and life-saving anti-retroviral therapy was not yet available. Only this is no longer the 1980s. In the 30 years since HIV was first discovered as the virus that causes AIDS, there has been much advancement in prevention and treatment.
The Philippines has got some catching up to do. Here’s some of the things Pia wants you to know about HIV.
“Anybody can get HIV. You don’t just get it from having sex with a gay man. You can get it having sex with a woman, by sharing infected needles. Even a baby can get it.”
Being straight doesn’t protect you from HIV
“Anybody can get HIV. You don’t just get it from having sex with a gay man. You can get it having sex with a woman, by sharing infected needles. Even a baby can get it,” Pia told Esquire in an interview.
That just about summarizes the main ways you get can HIV. You see, HIV is a virus that needs a “carrier” for it to be transmitted from one person to another. That carrier is bodily fluid like semen, vaginal fluid, blood or breast milk. From there, you can see how you can get HIV from unprotected sex (anal, vaginal and oral), blood transfusion or sharing of infected needles or passed on from mother to child.
In the Philippines sexual contact, usually among men who have sex with men, is the predominant mode of transmission.
Get tested but use condoms, too
In a privilege speech before the Senate, Risa Hontiveros lamented the low levels of HIV testing.
“Only about 1 out of 2 Filipinos living with HIV is aware of their HIV status. A third of those infected with HIV have no access to lifesaving treatment,” said Risa.
Those numbers are still far off from the 90-90-90 UNAIDS target to end AIDS by 2020 by getting
1| 90% of all people living with HIV to know their HIV status
2| 90% of all people with diagnosed HIV infection receive sustained antiretroviral therapy.
3| 90% of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy have viral suppression which means having a very low level of HIV In your blood such that you are unlikely to infect someone.
No wonder one of Pia’s main messages is to get tested and know your HIV status. To remind her followers to get tested and know their status, Pia turns on the spunk and the heat with her sizzling bikini pics.
Pia herself got tested in New York in last year but has not revealed her status to the public.
“What if I say 'positive'? Are you going to be disgusted? Does that mean I'm a horrible person? Hmmm. That's where the discrimination comes in. My point is: Know your status. My question was 'Do you know your status' and not 'What's your status?' There's a difference,” Pia said in an interview.
Getting tested and knowing your status is great, we shouldn’t forget about prevention. “Condom use and contraception is also important. It’s really about respecting yourself and respecting your partner,” added Pia.
The age for HIV testing needs to be lowered
The current HIV Law dates back to 1998 prevents minors (anyone below 18) from getting tested without parental consent. So if you are under 18, you’re gonna have to tell Mom or Dad you want to get an HIV test.
For some teens, that’s just awkward and kind of unrealistic.
“Come on, realistically we all start having sex much younger than that," said Pia.
Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago filed for a bill to lower age of HIV testing to 15 which Pia supports saying that “the law has to adjust to what’s going on in the world”.
HIV is complex but not rocket science
"I’m not an expert on this, but I think that’s what makes me relatable. I want to simplify the information for people"
Pia may be the UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador now, but she is very candid about how she started out not knowing much about HIV—just like everyone else.
Her interest in HIV started during her Binibini Miss Universe Philippines days. She was invited to meet people living with HIV and from there decided that she wanted to know more about it by what else? Googling it.
As Miss Universe living in New York, she had more interaction with PLHIV and how they were able to live normal healthy lives through ARV medication and a good support system.
“I was curious back then and now continue to learn as much as I can about HIV as I go along. I’m not an expert on this, but I think that’s what makes me relatable. I want to simplify the information for people,” explained Pia.
Other advocates have seen for themselves how genuine Pia is to the cause. Mara Quesada executive director of ACHIEVE attended the United Nations General Assembly High Level Meeting on Ending AIDS at the UN Headquarters in New York last June 2016.
She remembers Pia being there as early as 7 a.m. “And she would stay for all the sessions all the way until 6PM. She was really dedicated to learning all that she could.
Live2Luv: Protect yourself and those you love
“It’s really all about protecting yourself and protecting those you love. It’s how we should live to love."
Pia uses a lot of social media for her HIV messages and she hopes that doing so will help normalize the discussion on HIV. “I want to make it trendy. I want to make getting testing cool.”
Having gotten tested herself, Pia knows how scary it can be and suggests getting tested with a friend. One of her plans is to round up other beauty queen friends to get tested.
“It’s really all about protecting yourself and protecting those you love. It’s how we should live to love,” Pia concluded.