New UNAIDS Ambassador Pia Wurtzbach appeals for lower age of consent for HIV testing

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach is the new Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS)-Asia and the Pacific – and she has something to say about the way the infection is treated in policy.

"One thing that I would like to see is for the age of consent to be lowered so that more people can get themselves tested," Wurtzbach said at the UNAIDS Ambassador Launch in Rizal Library, Ateneo de Manila University (AdMU) on Wednesday. "Because right now the age is 18. Come on, realistically we all start having sex much younger than that."

At present, those below 18 years old are not allowed to avail of HIV tests without parental guidance, discouraging younger teenagers from availing of the service, which is offered freely and confidentially in partner clinics of the Department of Health.

In an interview with CNN Philippines, Wurtzbach later suggested lowering the age of consent to "16 or 15 years old."

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When asked if this was an appeal for legislators, she answered, "Yeah, why not?"

"My job is to bring my message out there... If they're gonna take interest in that and they see that is fair and they indeed should lower it, then great," she added.

Joining Wurtzbach on stage were AdMU Sanggunian President Ia Marañon, transgender activist Heart Dino, and UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Asia and the Pacific Director Steve Kraus.

As a new ambassador, Wurtzbach will be working to raise HIV awareness among the youth. She will also be promoting "zero discrimination towards people living with HIV and key populations, including men who have sex with men and transgender people," the event press release said.

Wurtzbach has also spoken up for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights as well as against cyber bullying. She also attended the United Nations General Assembly High-Level Meeting on Ending AIDS and the UN headquarters in New York.

She pointed out that the youth would be shy to raise the topic in the household, where taking a test could "[become] a whole big issue."

"I think it would be very helpful to lower the age of consent so that more people can have the freedom to just walk into a facility or clinic... to get themselves tested and not have to worry about what people are gonna think or, even worse, what their loved ones are gonna think," Wurtzbach told CNN Philippines.

She also noted that while she understands some people are conservative, "times are really changing."

"The law should mirror what's going on outside... 2017 na po [It's 2017 already]. Hopefully we'll get to see some progress very soon," she added.

Wurtzbach also anticipated that she would "get bashed" for what she said, but she was willing to speak up for UNAIDS.

 

According to the DOH, there were 1,693 reported cases of HIV between January and February this year alone. Between January 2012 and February 2017, they recorded almost 33,000 cases.

Kraus noted there were around 7,000 new infections every year in the Philippines, the fastest growing rate of HIV in Southeast Asia. He also added that with about 45,000 to 50,000 people living with HIV in the country, only a third have access to treatment.

"When you see somebody die today of an AIDS-related disease, it's a double fault... in the sense that we've lost another person [and] that the health system and the community [have] failed that person," said Kraus. "That person, when they have access to good medical care, can live a full and active life."

UNAIDS maintains that of the 37 million people living with HIV worldwide, only half are aware they have contracted the virus. The agency is leading efforts to eradicate AIDS as a public health threat by 2030.

"We will end AIDS by 2030-but only if we do the right things between now and 2020," said Kraus.

Wurtzbach repeatedly reminded audiences and her fans to start the fight against HIV by being tested. She took her last HIV test in front of cameras in New York last June and is looking to have another public test in the Philippines this year.

"I actually had the idea of inviting along other beauty queens or other models [who] can join in," Wurtzbach shared. "They don't have to be scared. It's all discreet, but it would be nice to do public testing to show that it's safe, it's quick, everybody can do it."