On February 25, 2023, the Festival of Luv — a unique event that celebrates love, acceptance, and education — commemorated the Department of Health’s partnership with the FREE TO BE U campaign which promotes healthy behaviors to protect Filipinos from HIV and AIDS. The event was held at The Pop Up, Katipunan, from 11 am to 9 pm.
“We are thankful to the DOH for showing their strong support for persons living with HIV (PLHIV) by partnering with the FREE TO BE U campaign during this event. This is such an exciting and empowering development for HIV/AIDS awareness advocates and persons living with HIV,” said Teresita Marie Bagasao, Project Director of EpiC Philippines. “The inclusion of Free to Be U in DOH’s comprehensive health education campaign Healthy Pilipinas is a major milestone that brings the country closer to the global goal of ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic by 2030.”
The FREE TO BE U campaign seeks to empower PLHIV to break free from labels and be free to enjoy life and love by: informing PLHIV, persons with increased vulnerability to HIV, and the general public about available HIV prevention and treatment services to facilitate better access; building up safe spaces and communities where their voices can be heard; and working with organizations and advocates from the PLHIV community, in order to promote free HIV services and destigmatize the public’s view regarding the virus and the journey of people living with HIV. The campaign was launched by EpiC Philippines in 2022.
“With this campaign partnership we call #FreeToBeU para sa isang #HealthyPilipinas, we hope to reach more members of the PLHIV community and those who may need protection from contracting the virus, and provide them with the necessary education and resources to lead healthy and full lives,” Bagasao shared. “The DOH is an essential partner in our efforts to strengthen HIV service delivery in the country, which includes distributing the U.S.-donated HIV preventive drugs PrEP and HIV viral load cartridges to the various government and community facilities throughout the country.”
The whole-day Festival of Luv aims to make health literacy sexy, and featured a mix of fun and informative activities, as well as concessionaires. There were also performances from the country’s contestants and winners from Drag Race Philippines and Drag Den. In addition, the local government of Quezon City provided HIV testing, as well as counseling for HIV and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to all those who need it. The main evening forum was led by medical experts, advocates, and key resource persons who shared the latest updates regarding the efforts to maintain HIV epidemic control in the country as well as offered advice to PLHIV in their journey towards being U Equals U — Undetectable Equals Untrasmittable — adherents to their antiretroviral treatment who have maintained an undetectable viral load and no longer transmit the virus sexually.
According to Bagasao, “The Festival of Luv, one of EpiC Philippines’ many initiatives, was organized to help promote the FREE TO BE U para sa Healthy Pilipinas campaign and provide a safe space for the LGBTQIA+ community and allies where we can celebrate love in all its beauty and forms: be steadfast in the face of a positive HIV diagnosis; be advocates for PLHIV and the people who care for them; and keep on dreaming and fighting for a Philippines where we can turn to each other – whatever your gender, status, or sexuality – and say, ‘You are FREE TO BE U.’”
EpiC Philippines is part of a global project dedicated to achieving HIV epidemic control, and is supported by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the United States Agency for International Development. Certain challenges concerning HIV service delivery are currently being addressed, and PEPFAR and USAID’s support — through EpiC and the DOH — ensures that all Filipino PLHIV receive necessary HIV services, thus contributing to the global 95-95-95 HIV goals by 2030.
This is vital, as the Philippines still has one of the fastest rising numbers of HIV cases in the Asia Pacific region. As of November 2022, epidemiology data shows that there is an average of 42 HIV cases per day in the country. PLHIV need accessible and regular HIV treatment services to ensure they live a healthy life by being U Equals U.
Rodley Desmond Daniel Carza, OIC-Director IV of the DOH’s Health Promotion Bureau, shared, “FREE TO BE U is also part of the Healthy Pilipinas campaign which focuses on the seven priority areas of the Health Promotion Framework Strategy that includes sexual and reproductive health. Thanks to this partnership, we can encourage other by sharing the stories of people who have accessed free HIV services – services that empower them to live from fear, free from stigma, and free to be themselves. Sa kampanyang ito, sama sama nating sabihin sa lahat na ikaw ay ‘FREE TO BE U para sa isang Healthy Pilipinas!’”
More information about the Free TO BE U Campaign is available on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter: @FreeToBeUPH.