Malaysian expert: Prolonged MCO leaves sex workers, youth vulnerable to HIV infection due to lack of access to condoms

The worldwide shutdown has forced many sex workers out of a job, leaving them in dire need of daily essentials. — AFP pic
The worldwide shutdown has forced many sex workers out of a job, leaving them in dire need of daily essentials. — AFP pic

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KUALA LUMPUR, April 27 — Four years ago, Malaysia announced bold yet ambitious plans to achieve the target of zero-HIV/AIDS nation by year 2030.

This year, the country was set to hit the 90-90-90 target by UNAIDS (a joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) with the goal to have 90 per cent of people with HIV know their status.

It also aimed to have 90 per cent of those diagnosed with the infection have sustained antiretroviral therapy and 90 per cent of people on antiretroviral therapy have the virus suppressed.

However, the path to achieving the milestone may get bumpy due to the Covid-19 outbreak, movement control order (MCO) and its economic fallouts.

This is in addition to the existing problem of tackling new infections because of sexual transmission.

Health Ministry statistics show that sexual transmission made up 94 per cent of the 3,293 new infections in 2018.

Referring to recent news reports, human rights advocate Datuk Dr Raj Abdul Karim said the pandemic and the mandatory shutdown has left sex workers in dire need of food supplies as they are not able to earn a living.

She also suspected that some of the sex workers could have gone home-based to carry on their work to earn a living.

If such a scenario is true, Dr Raj said its consequences could eventually cause an increase in the number of HIV cases.

“We are not sure if they are using condoms.

“We need to be prepared for the probability of unprotected or unsafe sex which will lead to a rise in HIV cases,” said Dr Raj, who was Malaysian AIDS Council president from 2012 to 2016.

According to Dr Raj, another factor to consider when it comes to HIV transmission is the sexual behaviour of adolescents and youths during the MCO.

“Despite the movement restrictions, some teenagers and unmarried couples will find ways to meet up for sexual activities.

“Therefore, we need to prepare for the eventuality of unplanned pregnancies as well as possibilities of HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) cases,” she added.

Dr Raj also said the global condom shortage and interruption in the supply chain of contraceptives amidst the worldwide shutdown could further fuel the possibility of unprotected or unsafe sex.

Earlier this month, Malaysian contraceptive giant Karex, which makes one in every five condoms globally, warned of a global condom shortage as their operations were affected by the movement restrictions during the first phase of MCO.

They have since restarted their operations.

Although several initiatives by outreach workers are currently underway to reach out to sex workers and drug users, Dr Raj called for other targeted initiatives to promote healthy sexual behaviour among youths.

“We need to reach out to adolescents and youths to create awareness of a healthy lifestyle and healthy sexual behaviour for them to make informed choices and correct decisions to protect themselves.

“We will be able to take positive steps forward if we pre-empt and act proactively to ensure access to healthcare and provide timely information through tele-applications, appropriate messaging, counselling and supports,” said Dr Raj.

She added that prevention and early action was paramount in tackling HIV, STIs and unintended pregnancies.

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