For people living with HIV (PLHIV), travel isn’t all that different nowadays compared with their non-immunodeficient compromised peers. The key is for PLHIVs to keep themselves healthy—more specifically, achieve viral suppression or undetectable status. This means that the antiretroviral treatment (ART) has reduced the virus in his or her body to such small quantities that it is no longer transmissible through sex.
We talked to Gary G. Catalbas, also known as Papa Chen, a 40-year-old advocate, cultural worker, public servant, and volunteer HIV counselor. Catalbas, who has been living with HIV for the past five years, talked about how it’s like to travel for a PLHIV, and dished out some tips to make trips hassle-free.
One thing’s for sure, his status as PLHIV has not diminished his taste for adventure—and sweets. Here are some of his tips:
1. Pack your pills.
First things first: Pack your pills. ARV meds are an essential part of a PLHIV’s life, especially when they travel. These meds are taken every day and can’t be bought over the counter, so it should always be a priority when packing. Catalbas recommends bringing more than what you need. For example, if you would be away for five days, consider bringing meds that are good for 10 days. Better to have extra for any eventuality. In any case, bringing ARVs is quite easy as it fits perfectly in any carry-on bag.
2. Keep copies of medical records.
Some PLHIVs bring copies of their medical records such as medical abstract, medical certificate, and prescriptions as these could prove very helpful during emergencies. This is especially true when travelling abroad. Digital copies could prove useful, too.
3. Check if country of destination permits entry of PLHIV.
When traveling abroad, check if the country of destination allows entry of PLHIV. Unfortunately, in this day and age, there are still nations that restrict entry of PLHIV. An HIV-positive status may be denied entry in countries such as Iraq, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. There are also countries that deport individuals based on HIV status such as Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
4. Visit helpful websites such as QuickRes.org or HIVtravel.org.
While there are still no mobile apps that exclusively help PLHIVs in their travels, there are some helpful websites that assist PLHIVs access free treatment and support. There’s QuickRes.org, an HIV service booking web app that’s available in more than 20 countries, including the Philippines, where PLHIVs and HIV negative individuals can book free HIV services. QuickRes in the Philippines is implemented by the USAID-supported EpiC Project and have pilot sites in Metro Manila, Central Luzon, and CALABARZON. It’s also best to keep the contact details of their treatment hubs and PLHIV Response Center which can be really helpful for any immediate concerns. The PLHIV Response Center can be reached via their social media platforms, and PLHIVs can also access the DOH AIDS Map site for the nearest treatment facilities and social hygiene clinics.
5. Get vaccinated.
Before travelling, consider getting all necessary vaccines. Aside from the COVID-19 jabs, flu and pneumococcal vaccines are of utmost importance. PLHIVs may also want to be inoculated against hepatitis B and Japanese encephalitis meningitis as these provide added layer of protection against opportunistic infections.
6. Be very vigilant.
If possible, avoid close contact with migratory birds, interactions with wild animals, or animal dung. Also refrain from visiting places with known tuberculosis, pneumonia, and highly active COVID-19 cases as PLHIVs are more susceptible to catching these diseases. Also be mindful of water and food they would be consuming. The last thing they want on their vacation is to catch more bacterial and viral infections.
7. Have fun.
Because of significant advancements in the management and treatment of HIV/AIDS over the past years, with many of the services provided for free, PLHIVs can now enjoy long, productive, and healthy lives. This means they can travel all they want. PLHIVs can eat at any restaurant and do any activity they want (even the more strenuous ones so long as they are fit) or eat anything off the menu as long as he or she is not allergic to that food.
Catalbas wants to reiterate that it is not possible to get infected with HIV by sharing a spoon or a glass with a PLHIV. HIV, the virus that can causes AIDS, is usually transmitted through blood or unprotected sexual intercourse with someone who is HIV-positive. While there is still a bit of stigma around HIV, AIDS, and PLHIV in the Philippines, it’s important to note that it is a highly treatable and manageable disease.
Catalbas said: “And, don’t forget, even on a holiday your ARV meds need are at work 24/7. Traveling can turn you into a storyteller when you come home. So go on that trip when you can.”