KUALA LUMPUR. Nov 17 ― It has almost been three years since Bakhtiar Talhah took the helm of the Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC).

Since then, the MAC president said things were moving in the right direction despite the constant battle to overcome stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV in the country.

Bakhtiar, who is also chief operating officer of an international non-profit organisation, said his team has addressed certain issues aggressively, primarily ramping up treatment in other states and pushing for a better understanding of HIV/AIDS in private institutions.

Despite the positives, Bakhtiar admitted that the number of people infected or affected by the virus have seen a slight increase.

“We’ve seen great changes throughout these few years together with help and support from the Health Ministry.

“However, the numbers are slightly on a rise, not for the worse but because there are more people getting tested.

“Our focus has been directed at getting people tested and treated so I’m not too shocked by the growing numbers,” he told Malay Mail ahead of the Malaysian AIDS Foundation’s Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award Gala Dinner 2018 on December 16.

He added that there was a need to include private organisations to get “the masses” as it was the best way to raise awareness.

“The demographics of infected HIV/AIDS Malaysians are changing, 18 to 40-year-olds are the highest at-risk group now.

“They are also in the peak of their careers at that age, so it is important to work with these organisations.”

Bakhtiar said there was much more to be done in terms of scaling up MAC’s services.

Among the ways that he listed in order for Malaysia to tackle the disease was to provide Malaysians basic education on the subject, testing, treatment, and ensuring all infected patients go through a proper checkup process.

“We’ve been practising a very individualised approach and our grassroots NGOs work throughout the country, from Kedah to KL and even Sandakan.”

He highlighted the involvement of non-governmental organisations is one of the main reasons of how HIV/AIDS awareness has been further raised in the past three years.

“They carry out the programmes we have at MAC and from morning to night they spend time seeking individuals who are still afraid or shy to come out,” said the former MAC executive director.

Despite the increased efforts to raise awareness, Bakhtiar said stigma is hard to run away from. 

“Many people have prejudice, fears or negative attitudes about HIV, and along with stigma.

“It results in groups of people getting insulted, gossiped about, rejected and excluded from activities in a community or a workplace.”

He added that no one should be discriminated and everyone needed to work towards getting rid of it.

“Being HIV positive and gay gives me a different perspective to how I see things.

“But at the end of the day, everyone in Malaysia with HIV will face stigma sadly, and that alone makes it difficult for us to carry out our programmes.”

The 44-year-old was diagnosed when he was 21, but had he faced the disease head on by getting the necessary information.

He also received support from family and friends.

“I still do not understand the ever-growing stigma on HIV,” he said.

“It’s really much easier to live with than any other disease. All I do is take two pills a day and I don’t wake up thinking in my head that I have HIV.”

“I take my medication at 10pm daily and that’s it.

“It’s much harder to even live with diabetes for example, with the various treatments, medications or jabs needed throughout a 24-hour period.”

It was recently reported that the Malaysian Business Consortium on HIV/AIDS under MAF was working with the Human Resources Ministry on a policy to ensure that people with HIV/AIDS were not discriminated when it comes to employment.

Bakhtiar addressed it as an important issue as most of those affected were from the 18 to 40 age group.

“Some are even fired from their jobs after the news spread around their office.

“With this new legislation in store, we want Malaysians to know that employers do not have the right to fire someone who has got HIV. They can take medication and still work.”

He advised people living with HIV to try and create a good support system around them if they felt that the stigma against them was too much.

“When I told a few people, I was living with HIV, not all stayed in touch.

“But I never let these things stop me because I’ve always had this belief that if you can overcome stigma or discrimination, you have set such a good example.”

Malaysia along with other countries are working towards ending AIDS by 2030, and Bakhtiar pointed out that by the looks of it, Malaysia can better the target.

“We have the right ingredients but now the goal is to find the perfect way to raise awareness and end stigma.

“We, at MAC have a role to play, especially to make sure government policies are in line with what society is facing,” he said.

Malay Mail is the media partner for the Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award Gala Dinner 2018.

Tables are available in the following categories: Diamond (RM50,000); platinum (RM30,000) and gold (RM20,000). For more information, please contact Nurshaliza Manaf at [email protected] or 014-504 8927 or Azahemy Abdullah [email protected] or 016-646 5874.