In November 2010, Sex and Sensibilities.com Founder and Editorial Director Ana Santos was awarded a media grant by Newsbreak
to conduct an investigative report on the rising incidence of HIV in the Philippines.
In this third of a five part series, Santos explores sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and the increasing incidence on call center workers.
In September last year, the Philippine Society of Venereologists Inc. (PSVI) hosted a conference warning about the dangers of sexually transmitted infections that go unreported and undiagnosed. STIs, if untreated, may lead to infertility, mental disorientation and sometimes death.
It is also makes one more vulnerable to being infected by HIV.
According to the 2003 National Demographic Health Survey, only 7.6% of men aged 15-19 and less than 2.2% of those aged 20-49 reported an STI or STI symptoms.
In 2004, the Department of Health documented 221 cases of gonorrhea and 64 cases of Chlamydia. But Dr. Marcellano Cruz, board member of PSVI, warns says this does not paint an accurate picture of the problem for a number of reasons.
First, private clinics and hospitals are not required to report STI incidence among patients. And there is no regulation on the tracking of STIs and after the 2004 data, no recent studies have been done on STIs, according to Cruz.
Cruz, a dermatologist, said some of his patients come in for a consultation without awareness of STI symptoms. As STIs usually manifest on the skin, dermatologists are often the first to be consulted.
“Sexual history is needed to make a diagnosis. That’s when I find out that they have had unprotected sex with multiple sex partners,” he says.
Who’s the culprit?
The social media is not the only culprit behind the site of sex-related diseases. STIs and HIV have found their niche in workplaces, experts say, courtesy of young professionals working in call centers.
Packed with young, mobile and moneyed young people, the call center industry has been labeled a natural magnet for STIs and HIV. Estimates show that about 80% of all contact center employees are in their early to mid-20s, each earning an average of Php16,000 a month.
A a study made by the Philippine General Hospital showed that over half of those tested positive for HIV were call center agents. (File photo)
In a study made by the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) from November 2009 to January 2010, over half of those who were tested positive for HIV among the 406 male respondents were call center agents.
A March 2010 study by the University of the Philippines Population Institute (UPPI) reports that call center employees are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior compared to other types of workers.
The UPPI study was conducted in Metro Manila and Metro Cebu and covered 16 call centers and 675 respondents, all below 35 years old.
For comparative purposes, some 254 employees from different industries were also interviewed.
The study reveals that:
• The prevalence of risky sexual activity is higher among call center respondents for casual sex, non-romantic regular sex (“friends with benefits” or “fuck buddies”), unprotected sex with multiple sex partners, sex with same gender and commercial sex.”
• Significantly more call center respondents had casual sex as compared to non-call center employees. (40% vs 27%)
• Male call center respondents reported a higher average number of partners than non–call center employees, at 3.2 vs 2.2
• More than 40% of the respondents reported that their last sexual encounter was unprotected.
Grace Cruz, UPPI director offers a caveat, however. “The report did not examine timing, so these behaviors may have been initiated long before the respondents started working in a call center.” The impact of social media and the Internet on how people engage in relationships was also not studied.
Eric Manalastas of the UP Diliman Psychology Department describes call centers as ”strong situations…where one re-fashions his identity, one’s sense of right or wrong.”
The erratic working hours isolate call center employees from others who have regular day jobs. This displacement makes the call center not just a workplace but one’s reality.
Manalastas cited examples like jails, OFW populations, and same sex schools “where they create their own subculture because they are somewhat disconnected from reality”.
The Contact Center Association of the Philippines (CCAP) denies that call centers have become a hotbed of STIs and HIV.
“I will not say that [casual sex] it is not happening in call centers, but I don’t understand why we are the only industry being highlighted.” Jojo Uligan, CCAP director, said.
Uligan says there are “solid health and wellness programs” that cover STI prevention in all call centers. But he admits that condoms are not distributed in the workplace because the move could be seen as promoting casual sex.
While more people are engaging in unprotected sex with multiple partners, condom use remains dismally low. (File photo)
Low condom use
As easy access to risky sex has gone unchecked, health authorities worry that HIV could just make a grand entrance.
The Philippines has been classified as “low and slow” in HIV infection, but such description may not be accurate anymore.
While more people are engaging in unprotected sex with multiple partners, condom use remains dismally low.
A Reuters report identified the Philippines as having the lowest condom use in Asia.
Experts say that elements indicative of a rising epidemic are here: low condom use, multiple and concurrent partners, high mobility (in relation to OFWs), and increasing practice of anal sex among MSM.
There are signs pointing towards this possibility.
In 2009, there were two new HIV cases reported everyday. The latest numbers in 2010 showed that there are now five new HIV cases reported daily.
Health experts are now struggling to keep within the goal of less than 1% prevalence among the most at-risk groups.
They are, only now, starting to uncover where the epidemic is hiding and to acknowledge why it is growing. – with research assistance from Ma. Ernica de Guzman
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