Health Ministry continues fight against HIV

A visitor takes part in a HIV knowledge survey conducted by volunteers at the Red Ribbon Popup Store. — Picture courtesy of Malaysian AIDS Council
A visitor takes part in a HIV knowledge survey conducted by volunteers at the Red Ribbon Popup Store. — Picture courtesy of Malaysian AIDS Council

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KUALA LUMPUR, May 11 — HIV infection from unsafe sex is now the No. 1 enemy in the Health Ministry’s fight to slash the number of new cases.

Among the measures the ministry has drawn up are providing antiretroviral medication to HIV negative partners as it would help suppress the spread of infection and boost its drive to get more Malaysians to come forward for regular HIV testing.

The ministry is also pushing for sex education to be introduced in schools.

Its disease control deputy director and HIV/STI sector head, Dr Sha’ari Ngadiman, said the pre-exposure prophylaxis pill (PrEP) was also being recommended as a preventive measure.

PrEP is a pill that people at high risk of being infected can take daily as a preventive measure.

Dr Sha’ari said the increasing number of people being infected with HIV through sexual relations was alarming.

“In 2015, statistics had shown that 78 per cent of people were infected because of sexual activities. If we do not take preventive measures now, this number will increase drastically as there is no specific method to track people’s sexual activities,” he said.

In 2014, the number was 74.6 per cent.

There were 3,330 new infections last year, including 1,398 through heterosexual transmission and 1,203 through homosexual and bisexual transmission.

Injecting drug users made up 561 of new infections while there were 19 cases of mother to child infections. There was no information for 149 cases.

Dr Sha’ari said another prevention method was the use of condoms.

“They must continuously practise safe sex to prevent themselves and their partners from being infected,” he said.

He urged those with active sex life to get tested for HIV.

“Many of the 1Malaysia clinics are able to do HIV tests. The patient can even do the test anonymously if they are afraid of having a record at the clinic,” he said.

Dr Sha’ari said this after the launch of the Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC) and Malaysian AIDS Foundation Red Ribbon Popup Store at Pavilion Kuala Lumpur yesterday.

The number of new infections peaked in 2002 at 6,978 cases. However, this number has declined and remained somewhat stagnant.

A major reason behind the decline is credited to the government introducing harm reduction for injecting drug users, such as methadone replacement therapy and needle and syringe exchange programmes.

Deputy director-general of public health Datuk Dr Lokman Hakim Sulaiman said one should not be comfortable by the low number of infections as the numbers needed to be brought down further.

He said the ministry would be providing the Malaysian AIDS Council with RM7 million funding this year so it can provide services such as prevention and testing.

“So far, we have reached out to only 30 per cent but now our plan is for the treatment to reach 90 per cent of the population by 2030,” he said.

“We decided to ask them what are the best preventive measures they would like to overcome this virus so that we can fight this battle and achieve visible results,.”

He said another alarming fact was that statistics revealed the highest number of those being infected because of high risk behaviour like unsafe sex and injecting drug use were between the ages of 20 ad 29 (36 per cent) and 30 to 39 years (32.2 per cent). 

“I believe sex education should be given in schools so that young children would be aware of the consequences of their actions,” he said.

“If it is not instilled from a young age, chances of rates continuously increasing in that age group is high.”

Deputy Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Hilmi Yahaya said HIV prevention methods must be given further emphasis so that stigmatisation will be overcome.

“We believe the rates of new cases can decrease even further if all the parties work together to achieve the end goal of this campaign,” he said.

MAC president Datuk Dr Raj Karim said the stigmatisation must be reduced so people would seek treatment and increase their awareness.

“The society must be open in accepting people with HIV and break down the mental barrier that the ones suffering from it should suffer in silence,” she said.

She said the sex education in schools must be boosted to higher standards so that children are educated to issues at a younger age.

“Children must be taught about safe sex from a young age so that they would be responsible with their actions,” she said.

* An earlier version of the story contained an error which has since been corrected. 

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