No link between call centers and HIV spread?

Posted at 02/10/10 1:03 AM

MANILA, Philippines - Though more gay and bisexual call center workers are getting infected with HIV due to unprotected sex, according to a study by the Philippine General Hospital (PGH), health experts say there is inconclusive data to prove that call centers are "breeding grounds" of HIV.

In a study, the PGH gave free rapid HIV tests to 406 male respondents from November 2009 to January 2010.

Researchers looked for respondents at gimmick hotspots in Metro Manila. The respondents' ages or locations were not provided.

Only 385 respondents disclosed their occupation. The sample comprised of men who have sex with men (MSM), particularly gays, bisexual males and "call boys" or sex workers.

Of the sample, 130 were MSM call center agents.

"You're seeing more and more gay men, bisexuals getting infected with HIV. But only few walk in to clinics to have themselves tested. So we were the ones who went out to administer HIV tests to them," explained Dr. Louie Mar Gangcuangco, an internal medicine intern at the PGH.

The study found that 48 or 12% of respondents were carriers of human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV), a virus that destroys a person's immune system.

Over half (26 people or 54%) of those found to be HIV positive were call center agents. However, this number only comprises only a small percentage (6.4%) of the total sample size.

Though HIV-positive call center agents comprise a small group in the study, PGH doctors like Gangcuangco find the numbers "alarming."

"The data we are seeing now, the one that alarms us, is just focused on this small subset of call center agents. So these are vulnerable call center agents [comprising of] men having sex with men, gays or bisexuals engaging in high-risk behavior," Gangcuangco said.

Risk factors

Health official Dr. Eric Tayag, chief of the Department of Health's National Epidemiology Center, however, said the study's results are inconclusive. 

He said studies about the spread of HIV should not stigmatize call center agents or other groups, but should rather focus on alerting vulnerable groups and finding solutions.

"Kailangan maproteksyonan natin ang mga kabataan. At ang paraan ng DOH para maproteksyunan, malaman kung ano 'yong risk na kinsasangkutan nila. Kasi kung hindi natin alam kung ano nangyayari, ang hirap maglagay ng programa," Tayag said.

(We need to protect the youth. The DOH's way of protecting them is knowing what risks they are under. Because if we don't know what's happening, it's hard to make a program.)

According to the PGH, there are 3 main risk factors that contribute to the spread of HIV among MSMs, particularly those who work in call centers.

These include financial empowerment or having money to go out to parties or gimmicks, little or no condom use and the habit of switching from one sexual partner to another.

The study found that HIV carriers had an average of 16 casual sex partners each.

Call center agents a priority?

The government is reportedly prioritizing initiatives to curb the spread of HIV among sexually active call center agents, since they work in an industry that brings in billions of dollars yearly.

The business process outsourcing (BPO) industry is tagged as the country's "sunshine industry."

It has over half a million Filipino workers and has earned $7.5 billion in 2009 alone.

However, a former call center agent who identified himself as "Humphrey" said there is no connection between call center work and the spread of HIV.

Humphrey, who is gay and HIV positive, said Filipinos should simply change their attitude towards sex.

According to 2009 data by the National Epidemiology Center and the United Nations Development Programme, HIV has spread in the Philippines at the rate of 3 people per day.

"Vulnerable groups" are OFWs, out-of-school youth, street children who are sometimes forced into prostitution, and MSM communities (which cross-cultural studies said comprise 10% of the Philippine population).

All HIV cases were transmitted through sexual contact, with 36% of cases transmitted through homosexual contact and 89% of cases caused by unprotected sex.

But there are other modes of transferring the virus through needles used for drug use and passing on the virus from mother to child.

A 2007 Integrated HIV Psychological study cited by the Philippine AIDS Council found that the rise in Internet-usage, which makes it easier to find sexual partners online; the prevalence of drugs and alcohol among MSMs from 2004 to 2007; and the popularity of anal sex without condoms has contributed to the spread of HIV. With reports from Jay Ruiz, ABS-CBN News.