Thursday, March 23, 2017

STATUS -- Women and HIV: 4 Reasons We Should Pay Attention to the Numbers

By Reiner “Meow” Grospe

Photo taken at Bale Angeleño, Balibago, Angeles City, a government center that offers reproductive health care, STI screening, and treatment, run by the local government of Angeles City

In December 2016, the HIV/AIDS & ART Registry of the Philippines (HARP) reported there was an average of 26 new cases each day in the same year. But out of this number, how many represent the occurrence of HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) infection among females? 

Out of the 750 newly reported cases in December 2016, 29 (3.87%) were female, while the cumulative cases from 1984 to December 2016 had a total of 39,622 reported cases where 2,810 (7.09%) were female. Compared to the number of men diagnosed with HIV, the report shows a small number. Does this permit us to pay lesser attention to women affected by this particular health and social issue? “The fact that there are women being infected with the virus, no matter what the number is, they should not be taken for granted,” said Mary Ann Cortez, Nurse and Focal Person for HIV in the Provincial Health Office of Pampanga. Here are 4 reasons we should listen to her:

1. Sexual Transmission is Easier 
One may be infected with HIV through blood transfusion, sharing of needles, mother-to-child transmission, or unprotected penetrative sex (sex without the use of condoms) with a person living with HIV (PLHIV). And the most common way to transmit HIV according to various studies[1, 2, 3] is unprotected penetrative sex. While men and women do not differ in this category, it is a fact that during vaginal sex, HIV is easier transmitted from male to female than from female to male, which puts women at a higher risk.

2. Women-related Complications
Women face unique circumstances when dealing with HIV infection, including repeated vaginal yeast infections, severe pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), and a higher risk of cervical cancer. Furthermore, women may also experience problems related to their reproductive health, like changes in their menstrual cycle or even absence of periods (amenorrhea). Also, women living with HIV are more prone to osteoporosis.

3. Mother-to-child Transmission
HIV transmission is possible for a woman in her prenatal condition. This may be prevented but only with the help of regular intake of antiretroviral drugs – but aren’t those teratogenic (harmful) to the baby, you ask? AIDSinfo recommends[4, 5] that all women in their childbearing years should be well educated about this maternal issue. They should identify their childbearing intentions and make this their driving force throughout their treatment. Also, they must have a plasma viral load (concentration of HIV in blood plasma) below the limit of detection before conception. On the contrary, if a woman living with HIV does not want to get pregnant, she should know that all types of contraceptives can still be effective in her condition. These contraceptives prevent conception only and not the transmission of HIV, and that is why using condoms is still necessary.

With regard to ART (antiretroviral therapy), the effectiveness of the treatment regimen should be considered as well as the drug-to-drug interactions between the hormonal contraceptives and ART. Furthermore, AIDSinfo says the Hepatitis B status of the mother, the teratogenic effect of the regimen, and other adverse effects to the mother and fetus should be evaluated.

4. Other Social Issues Affecting Women
According to Mary Ann Cortez, there is a cause for concern that the number of newly diagnosed HIV cases among the youth is  increasing. She connects this with the existing issue of teenage pregnancy. “Teenage pregnancy is there. This means that some young women are engaging in unprotected sexual activities, and the fact that they do means they are also at high risk of getting HIV,” she said. 

Meanwhile, Dr. Verona Guevarra, the Reproductive Health and Wellness Chief of Bale Angeleno (Angeles City’s Social Hygiene Treatment Hub located in the red light district of the city) shared to us that before they ignited much effort in HIV and AIDS awareness and prevention, the trend in the number of HIV transmission based on sex in their city was different from the nationwide trend where more males get infected. This is because the said community is known to be a hub of transactional sex or sexual activity that involves paying or accepting money or both. “Before, we diagnosed more females because of the red light district here, where customers are both Filipinos and foreigners. But it is different now,” she said. 

Since 2010, they have been implementing mandatory HIV counseling for all their registered sex workers, but HIV testing remains voluntary. Since then, the numbers in their scale slowly tuned in with the nationwide trend. To date, the HARP reported 66 (9%) of the total captured positive cases in December 2016 (750) engaged in transactional sex where 5 were females. Poverty remains the number one reason people in this industry do transactional sex. Poverty is everywhere, and so is transactional sex. All of these women [and men] should be reached.

Like social inclusion, economic progress, and gender equality, women also have an uphill battle against HIV and AIDS. Equality will also be our answer here – equality in the access of awareness regarding this matter. The number of women visiting the LoveYourself clinics are increasing in number. This is something good because HIV and AIDS is not a gay disease nor an LGBT issue alone; it requires everybody’s involvement. As Alicia Keys said, “Together, we want to change how you think about HIV. You might know women like them in your own life – they’re mothers, wives, daughters, students, caregivers, business owners. They’re just like you, and they’re just like me.”

Photo: Reiner “Meow” Grospe

LoveYourself conducts free HIV testing and counseling. For more information, click here.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Triangle of Self-Care: Understanding the Window Period

By Mark Angelo de Castro

A common question regarding HIV testing is: “When should I go for one?” Some say HIV testing should be done regularly, at least once a year. Others say it has to be twice a year, and there are those who say it should be done quarterly. None of them are wrong, but none of the statements are entirely correct either. This is because the correct time a person has to undergo HIV testing depends on his/her actions and behaviors. But for us to understand the relevant factors to determine the correct timing, we have to learn and understand the concept of the window period.

The Window Metaphor

The “window period[1]” is the time between a potential exposure to HIV infection and when an HIV test will give an accurate result with the appearance of detectable antibodies[2].

The same as how “the birds and bees” metaphor is used to explain sexual intercourse to children, we could use an actual window to explain how the window period works. The image below shows four boxes with the same scenario with one month progression. The first box shows the condition of the plants in the pots numbered 1, 2, and 3 at the end of 1 month, box two for the end of the second month, and boxes three and four for the end of the third and fourth months, respectively.

window 3 months 4 box with month.jpg

The plants shown were planted at the same time. Depending on the condition of the soil in the pot, the amount of water, the amount of sunlight, and several other factors (even the kind of seed planted), the rate of growth of each plant would differ. Plant number two reached the “window” first. This could be interpreted as early detection of HIV even before getting past the window period. Plant number one reached the “window” on the fourth month, which could be compared to detection after the window period of three months, while plant number three never reached the window, which shows a negative result despite having exhausted the minimum number of days.

Many advancements in HIV testing have already been developed with high probability of showing positive results when the person is infected (sensitivity), and high probability of showing negative results when there is no infection (specificity). Generally, we have two types of HIV testing methods: rapid tests and RNA tests. A rapid test is an immunoassay, which detects the presence of antibodies or antigens[2] in blood or oral fluids. This kind of test produces results in 30 minutes or less which makes it ideal for screening purposes. RNA tests detect the presence of the virus itself. However, this kind of testing is not recommended for HIV screening because it is more expensive, it requires more apparatus to conduct, and it takes more time to generate results.

Proteins and Antibodies

Our body has a natural response to unidentified substance entering our bodies, like bacteria, viruses, toxins, etc. This is called our immune response. Often, when we search online for information regarding HIV testing, the words antigens and antibodies appear, or they are normally mentioned in discussions regarding HIV in general. Just to have enough information to understand the window period more: An antigen is usually a type of protein on the surface of cells, fungi, bacteria, or viruses, which causes the body to produce antibodies against the unrecognized substance in our body; an antibody is also a protein produced by our body’s immune system when it detects unknown harmful substances (antigens).

The image above shows an example of an HIV testing kit that can detect both HIV antigens and HIV antibodies. 

During the duration of the window period, antigens are the ones being detected by the tests in the first few days or weeks after a potential exposure. In the early stages of infection, there is a rapid multiplication of antigens in the body, which also means that infected people in the window period are highly infectious. After some time, seroconversion[3] will occur. This is when the body generates antibodies as an immune response to the HIV antigen present in the body. This is also when HIV tests may give false negative[4] results. 

Antibodies attach to antigens, and the only time when either of the two will be detectable by tests is when one of them is more than the other. During seroconversion, the number of antibodies will be close to the number of antigens, and not having enough “free” or “unbound” antigens and antibodies in the body will cause both to be undetectable. Only after the window period will the amount of antibodies surpass that of the antigens, and from this point on, only antibodies will be detectable during tests.

MESSEd Up Information

As with a separate article that talks about practical ways on how to determine whether a person is at risk of HIV transmission, digging further into antigens and antibodies might lead to more confusing information than answers to questions. Basically, being aware of one’s own sexual activities, or other activities that could expose himself to the virus, is the first step in observing Timely Testing. 

By using ESSE (Exit, Sufficient, Survive, Entry) as a reference to know what the basic criteria for HIV transmission is, it is best to undergo testing after the window period of three months has passed. However, if a person is constantly within the boundaries of the window period, he may opt to have himself tested in regular intervals of three months. For a person who is sexually active yet always observes Safe and Satisfying Sex, he/she could have himself/herself tested after a minimum of three months from his/her last sexual encounter to six months or one year depending on his/her frequency of encounters, sexual activities, and sexual behaviour (includes having a monogamous or polygamous sexual relationship), while considering his/her mental state (anxiety and fear of infection).

Understanding how to correctly schedule one’s HIV testing is important. With Timely Testing in mind, coupled with Safe and Satisfying Sex and the Correct and Consistent use of Condoms, we can prevent further infections and help control the spread of the virus.

Images: Mark Angelo de Castro and Jan Raymond Bulanadi

Monday, March 06, 2017

Volunteer Spotlight: Yanyan Araña and Bubbles Rosos, “I Am A Woman”

By Ruben Jay C. Alvarez Jr.

If you happen to be part of the LGBT community and an advocate of diversity and inclusion, you definitely have an idea of one of the spectrums of the rainbow, the transgender people.

With all the heat that is going on inside the senate regarding the passing of the Anti-Discrimination Bill and the hatred and bigotry flowing on social media, it is good to have a glimpse on some of the things we need to understand about our friends from the transgender community.

We may not have experienced their struggles, but that doesn’t mean we need not be empathetic; that is humanity.

I talked to Yanyan and Bubbles, both LoveYourself volunteers, and asked them to share a part of their life with us, plus tell us why the new Victoria Health and Wellness Center that focuses on transgender persons is such a groundbreaking project.

When did you realize that you are a transgender woman?

Yanyan: I was a late bloomer. Years ago, I experienced depression, which I believed was due to identity crisis.  [I was] questioning myself. Then I realized that I wasn’t gay. I wasn’t fit to be gay. I started researching and learning things about transgender people. And by October 2015, I believed in myself that I am a woman. I felt I am a woman. Then I started taking Hormonal Replacement Therapy (HRT) as part of the transition process.

Bubbles: When I was in high school, I believed that transgender women were more accepted than crossdressers, so I decided to undergo HRT. But my HRT was interrupted because my parents and relatives found out about it. When I finished college, I restarted undergoing HRT, and eventually, they just accepted me because the physical changes were becoming visible.

How did your family take it?

Bubbles: Slowly. The changes in my body did not immediately become visible. And I was not even wearing women’s clothes. But when I was reviewing for my board exams, I tried wearing women’s clothes. And I was surprised that my mother was the one buying my clothes. I felt happy because she was very supportive.

Until now, they accept me for who I am. But there are times they become concerned about my future – family, relationships, and all those typical things that an LGBT member is concerned about.

Yanyan: When I was in high school and I thought I was gay, it was a struggle with my family since my father was strict. But they just kept on telling me to finish my studies and find a stable job before anything else.

The process [of acceptance] was gradual. Remember how mothers love to purchase underwear from Avon? I tried to wear those panties and brassieres, and my mother was wondering why her undergarments went missing. When she found out, she asked me, “Bakit mo ginagamit ang mga iyan?” Then I told her that I felt differently. Then eventually, she was the one buying me women’s underwear and even dresses.

I was accepted very well. But my father became stricter. He doesn’t want me wearing shorts and short skirts. He scolds me.

Since you identify as women, what are your regimens or “rituals” to maintain your womanhood? And how important are these for you?

Yanyan: For me, well, since I was younger, I was already vain. I always apply lotion and moisturizer. The only difference is I am using products for females and, of course, the addition of hormones. I take hormones twice a day before I go to sleep. Every time I take hormone, I feel that I am really a woman. The physical changes I see add to my “completeness.” It’s like a road to womanhood.

Bubbles: I suggested to Yanyan to double her dose to increase the estrogen level of her body and, of course, to “block” the androgen. I also take my pills every day before going to sleep. I suggest to take your pills the same time every day. But there were instances that I failed to take them due to my busy work schedule. Hormones, for me, are very important because I think I am more accepted by the society [when I take them]. But that doesn’t mean that all transgender people should take HRT or need to cross-dress. No. Transitioning is not that.

What do other people need to know about transgender women?

Yanyan: We are women. We are not gay men. Women!

Bubbles: We deserve the same respect people give to women because we are women. We are not some flesh that you run to when you are in need of sex. We also have dignity.

How do you handle your love life?

Yanyan: It is a challenge. You need to explain everything to them. You need to educate them with SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity and expression). And it also hurts that some men agree and pretend they understand and accept you, but at the end of the day, all they want from you is your body.

What I also notice is that more TGs are into relationships with foreign men because they are more open[-minded] than Filipinos.

Bubbles: I prefer hetero cisgender men, though it is a challenge nowadays, especially if the guy is family-oriented with very conservative roots. Another challenge is how society sees it [the relationship]. It is still taboo in the eyes of the majority, and therefore, it is difficult for some men to enter into a relationship with us.

How did you get involved in the HIV advocacy?

Yanyan: It started when my friend turned out to be HIV reactive. We were used to drinking alcohol  in a shared glass, and we thought we had contracted the virus through that. So what I did was I researched about HIV and testing centers, and I saw LoveYourself online. I found it cool because of the campaigns and the message it sends across.

Bubbles: I discovered LoveYourself in an app. There was a pop-up message about an upcoming HIV mass testing, so I was encouraged [to go]. I got myself tested and a volunteer told me about how someone can volunteer. Coincidentally, I saw Kenneth Dacion, who was my batchmate in college. He encouraged me to join the organization. More than the encouragement I got from Ken, the way volunteers treated their clients gave me that desire to help my community.

What do you do in LoveYourself?

Yanyan: I do counseling. I am a trained counselor for both individual and couple clients. I also help in events when it comes to video editing.

Bubbles: I want to be a counselor, but my work schedule prevents me from attending the training. So what I do is during my rest days, I go to Uni to do the decking. It’s like a receptionist job. I am the frontline volunteer for the center.

What is the relationship of HIV and the transgender community?

Yanyan: I have to share this: I believe there is a disconnect with the IHBSS (Integrated HIV Behavioral and Serologic Surveillance) data because TGs are still classified as MSM (men who have sex with men). From that, it is difficult to gather data exclusively for the transgender people. We can’t identify if the community is really at risk, though we all know that transgender women are really at risk because some of them are engaged in sex work. When it comes to transmission, some self-medicate and use IV drugs (e.g. glutathione).

What does LoveYourself need to do to reach a larger TG audience?

Yanyan: Well, LoveYourself started to cater to MSM, and I am glad that they opened their doors to the transgender community. There is a high risk of HIV infection among the transgender people. Therefore, more campaigns should be done to address their needs - more campaigns that are TG-centric and more TG volunteers.

Bubbles: More information dissemination. We need to find that market. There is a market out there.

How was the Victoria Health and Wellness Clinic born?

Yanyan: It started when Vinn Pagtakhan and Dr. Loyd Brendan Norella of ISEAN HIVOS were in Jakarta. While they were inside a cab, they thought of having a TG center similar to Tangerine, a TG clinic based in Bangkok and the first in Southeast Asia. Vinn and Doc Lloyd applied for funding and was approved. Then it materialized into this [Victoria Clinic].

LoveYourself had its soft launch of the center last December 2016, and primarily, we offer three levels of services. Level 1 is HIV counseling and testing on transgender concerns and basic baseline laboratory procedures and screenings for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Level 2 includes hormone management, advanced laboratory, and pre-SRS (sex reassignment surgery). Level 3 consists of more advanced medical procedures.

What are the things you need to do for the community to understand you better?

Bubbles: I always believe in continuous education. I believe that proper information dissemination is very important. We need to educate people with the differences between a transgender woman and a transsexual. The community also needs to understand our needs as women. And I think on our part, I believe in taking that bold step to reveal yourself to the people around you, especially to your family and relatives, because acceptance starts from being authentic.

What is your message of empowerment and encouragement to your fellow transgender women?

Yanyan: Laban lang, Bes! It is very challenging. Change is challenging - emotionally, physically, and even financially. When you transition, you have to make sure, deep within yourself, that you are a woman. You really need to take time for yourself to dig into your core. You will experience different forms of harassment from the outside world, and all you have to do is to ignore them. And one more thing: Do not ever settle for anything less. Do not lower your standards when it comes to relationships just because you are having a hard time finding a partner. You should not do that to yourself. You have to be true to yourself.

Bubbles: Transitioning is not like a U-Turn slot where you can turn back from where you were before. For those undergoing HRT, there is a chance you will become sterile, and therefore, your chance of having a biological family lowers. This is why you really need time to know yourself, to know more about your deeper understanding of your identity. Discrimination will always be there, but the judgment of other people is the last thing you want to think of. They don’t matter. As long as you are becoming true to yourself and not hurting anyone, do you.

We came to the end of the interview and how I wish I had more time with these beautiful ladies. Their stories opened my mind to a wider horizon about the truths that hide behind the fragile faces of transgender women (and men).

I encourage you to go out there and talk to a transgender man or woman, and let their stories inspire you and change your perspective towards them. Believe me, once you understand and accept their truth, you are helping the world a better place to live.

Photos and videos: Kevin Tuazon
Photo editing: Mark Long
Video editing: Yanyan Araña

LoveYourself Volunteer Spotlight is a monthly feature on the cause- and service-oriented members of LoveYourself. We will be chatting with volunteers from all walks of life – all united in one cause. Keep checking every month to meet the different faces of LoveYourself.

Have you been inspired by the courage and commitment of our volunteers? Like us on Facebook and help share our message of positivity and self-worth in your own communities to help fight the spread of HIV.

Monday, February 27, 2017

LoveYourself holds annual Cherry Poppin' fundraiser, launches new TestMNL campaign

One Canvas Events Place in Makati City was abuzz last February 25 for Cherry Poppin' - The 3rd Party, the third installment of LoveYourself's annual date auction for a cause.

BJ Pascual

Twelve gorgeous bachelors, including today's most in-demand photographer BJ Pascual and celebrity chef Jeremy Favia, were auctioned off to 430 thrilled bidders. Pascual and Favia topped the bids with P60,000 and P45,000, respectively.

Jeremy Favia

Attendees were also treated to a fashion show featuring the creations of designers Don Cristobal and Jaggy Glarino, with styling by Syper Abel. House music courtesy of DJ Mike Lavet and jaw-dropping performances by Venus of O-Bar and internet sensation Lady Gagita equally wowed the crowd.

All proceeds from the event will help fund LoveYourself’s HIV awareness campaign and testing operations, including the opening of two new community centers in Metro Manila.

TestMNL Launch

Jerome Alacre
This year's Cherry Poppin' also marked the launch of LoveYourself's newest HIV campaign, TestMNL. “LoveYourself is reinforcing the HIV advocacy with TestMNL, which is an adaptation of the TestBKK conducted in Bangkok, Thailand,” LoveYourself Executive Director Ronivin Pagtakhan said.

“With TestMNL, we are aiding the information gap through this intervention among the vulnerable populations like the youth and the males who have sex with males or what we call MSMs," he added.

Reality TV celebrity Jerome Alacre joined the lineup of TestMNL ambassadors. Alacre said his main purpose in supporting the HIV advocacy is to utilize his social media influence to impart necessary information to people, so they may become more responsible when engaging in sexual activities.

He said, “There is a big difference on how people in the U.S. manage the HIV-AIDS issue compared in the Philippines, as they have very easy access to treatment and tests. We want something similar to happen in the Philippines, especially on testing because that’s the most important part.” Alacre was an OFW in California for five years.

Other TestMNL ambassadors include Mr. Gay World Philippines (MGWP) 2016 winners John Raspado (title), Bench Ortiz (1st runner-up), and Khalil Vera Cruz (2nd runner-up).

TestMNL is a campaign funded by the Elton John AIDS Foundation through APCOM, a regional organization that promotes HIV issues that affect the lives of men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender people, including rights, health and well-being. For more information, visit

LoveYourself Executive Director Ronivin Pagtakhan (2nd from R) and APCOM Senior Advocacy and Programme Officer Inad Rendon (center) officially launched MGWP2016 1st runner-up Bench Ortiz (1st from L), MGWP2016 2nd runner-up Khalil Vera Cruz and reality TV show star Jerome Alacre (3rd from R) as TestMNL ambassadors. Also in the picture are LoveYourself volunteers (L-R) Iosif Cade, Lord-Art Lomarda and Francis Dacanay.

TestMNL X Cherry Poppin' is co-presented by Bliss, Vasst Exchange Int'l Inc. (Stella Rosa), and Victoria Court; in cooperation with MAC Cosmetics, Jack Daniels and Sip & Gogh; and supported by Aramesh Spa & Wellness, Art & Style Events Management and Production Design, Ground Zero, LeMiel Cafe, Nectar Philippines, Sparta Philippines, Tambayan and Regency Grand Suites, and The Menu Group (Splice, Sobremesa, SASA and Sangkap).

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Score the good kind of high with Sinulog Heartthrob Jhoseph Llorente at Cherry Poppin’ - The 3rd Party

By Mark Angello Ganon

Get ready to dull your senses with great booze and loud music with our Sinulog Heartthrob Jhoseph Llorente, as he joins the wolf pack of alpha males in LoveYourself’s hottest event, Cherry Poppin’ - The 3rd Party on February 25 at One Canvas Events Place in Makati (get tickets here:

Sef, as he is oftentimes called, is a 21-year-old alumnus of both Far Eastern University and De La Salle University. He might be one of the wolf cubs in this year’s searing pack of auctionees, but he’s definitely one to look out for. He is currently employed at Smart Communications Inc. as a Product Marketing Specialist. If he’s not dressed up in corporate wear, he can be caught donning his glad rags for a titillating night of revelry.

Unbeknownst to most, there’s another side to the Sinulog Festival we’ve all grown to love. Take away the vibrant tints and the resounding drumbeat and you’ll see the vulnerable and fervent side of this week-long fete in the Queen City of the South. And just like the festival, there’s also another side to our Sinulog Heartthrob. While he loves filling up with booze and raving until dawn, Sef has a soft spot for the arts and architecture. It’s pretty evident in his Instagram feed (@jhosephllorente), which has a solid 30 thousand followers. His gallery is adorned with remarkable shots of our homegrown architecture, from the towering modern skyscrapers of Makati to the minimalistic ancestral houses of Vigan.

Aside from being an aficionado of the arts and architecture, Sef himself is a work of art. Many would undeniably be enticed by his half-naked photos also scattered in his feed. And how does he maintain a sculpted physique, you wonder? He sweats off the booze through regular visits to gyms around Makati and BGC. Now, that’s one piece of art we can definitely get addicted to! Still craving more of our Sinulog Heartthrob? Grab a few more appetizers below:

What's your biggest dream in life?
It’s being able to make my dreams come true with the person I love the most.

Describe the perfect partner for you.
For me, the perfect partner is a person that thinks your needs are just as important as his/her needs.

What’s your dating/relationship deal breaker?
‪Dishonesty is the deal breaker for my relationships/dates.

In what ways can people help raise awareness and understanding of HIV?
Being an advocate to help raise awareness can help.

What are you looking forward to in Cherry Poppin' 3, and what should the attendees expect during the event?
I’m looking forward to being part of this fundraising event and being able to help what LoveYourself aims to do.

Get ready to get the good kind of high with our Sinulog Heartthrob as he bares the good stuff at Cherry Poppin' 3 - The 3rd Party at 8 PM on February 25, Saturday, at the One Canvas Events Place, 2235 Don Chino Roces Ave., Brgy. San Lorenzo, Makati City. Party starts at 8 p.m.

For tickets, log on to For reservations and queries, contact 0917-860-8244. Proceeds from the event will fund the opening of a new community center by LoveYourself this year.

Photography by Mark Alvarez
Make up by MAC Cosmetics