The rate of new HIV infections has significantly slowed over the years but if you take a closer look, there are signs of people being left behind.
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The big picture statistics show an encouraging decline in yearly new HIV infections in Malaysia.
Back in 2002, we peaked at a staggering 6,978 new infections that year, but now we have reduced it by more than half, with 2017 marking a drop to only 3,347 new cases in that year.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) also recently announced that Malaysia is the first country in the Western Pacific Region to have eliminated mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
These are all pointing to positive outlooks, but non-governmental organisation (NGO) PT Foundation says efforts need to be increased now more than ever.
Because, while it looks promising from a big picture view, there’s trouble brewing in the margins.
“If you look at it from a macro perspective, it looks good. The Health Ministry deserves credit for the tremendous drop in infections caused by injection drug use (IDU),” says PT Foundation Acting Chief Operating Officer Raymond Tai.
“But if IDU transmission is removed from the equation and you look at sexual transmission, that statistic is going up and up. And the more marginalised the segment of the population is, the more you will find the infection spreading.”
And the main obstacle standing in the way all these years remains to be stigma.
Medical and research advancements, but stigmatised nonetheless
The PT Foundation has been around for over 30 years now, starting in 1987 as a telephone counselling service for HIV/AIDS and sexuality issues.
Raymond recalls a time when being HIV positive was a death sentence, and all the organisation (known as Pink Triangle Malaysia at the time) could do was keep those in the hospital company as they waited for their time.
But he points out that many today are unaware of the fact that being HIV positive has been a manageable diagnosis since the 2000s, and that AIDS is a treatable disease.
There is even enough information out there to dispel myths about HIV being discriminatory to “specific groups” of people. However, Raymond finds that the perpetuated stigma towards HIV and the at-risk groups associated with it make it difficult for the issue to be addressed objectively as a matter of public health.
“There’s a lot of ‘morality’ pegged to the different aspects of HIV,” he says.
“Some people think, ‘it only happens to bad people’ and therefore, ‘I won’t get it because I’m good’.
“This mentality doesn’t encourage people to get tested voluntarily. Among many of those who get tested positive, many are afraid to seek treatment because they’re afraid of the stigma they’re going to face.” Raymond adds.
Today, PT Foundation focuses on five key affected marginalised populations mainly drug users, sex workers, transsexuals, men who have sex with men (MSM), and people living with HIV/AIDS (PLHIV).
The organisation however, is under constant pressure to keep updating their scope.
For example, Raymond shares that they have been increasing outreach in refugee communities because they are living largely outside of the standard healthcare system.
They also conduct outreach for children born with HIV from urban poor backgrounds, many of whom are approaching their teens, to ensure they stick with their treatment.
“Taking the outreach model we used for the gay community in the past, we adapt and develop similar models for other marginalised groups like drug users, sex workers, trans women, or whenever there’s a sizable amount of people dealing with HIV,” he says.
The evolving statistics of HIV in Malaysia
HIV first appeared in the country in 1986 with three recorded cases. By 2002, yearly new infections peaked at 6,978 cases.
In 2006, the Health Ministry launched Harm Reduction measures with an accompanying Needle & Syringe Exchange Programme (NSEP). It saw a steep drop in yearly new infections, specifically among the injected drug users.
The steep decline in new infections slowed down around 2010, with overall figures hovering just above 3,000 new infections annually.
This corresponds with sexually transmitted HIV infections surpassing IDU transmissions as can be seen in the chart below.
In the the decade of 2007 to 2017, sexually transmitted HIV grew from being 33% of cases to 91%.
While there was an overall decrease in new cases, the statistics highlights a gap in the fight against HIV. Which is the need for higher awareness of sexual health.
How you can get involved
“There are many ways to get involved, but the first thing is to get educated,” says Raymond.
He stresses that advocacy begins with the self because being informed not only keeps yourself aware of your sexual health, but allows you to share information with your peers and help destigmatise HIV and AIDS.
Here is a list of reading resources PT Foundation recommends:
If you want to get involved more directly with PT Foundation’s cause, here are some existing programmes to consider:
- PT Foundation runs the Community Health Care Clinic (CHCC) in Sentul, KL. The CHCCC provides three main services: Anonymous and confidential HIV screening, telephone counselling and face-to-face counselling. Recently it expanded to include point-of-care diagnosis and treatment for asymptomatic sexually transmitted infections and offers offers pre-exposure prophylaxis, a medication that effectively prevents HIV transmission.
- 2nd Chance is a programme that provides psychosocial support, HIV peer-support, financial assistance, and tuition to HIV affected and infected mothers and children.
Find out how you can volunteer by checking out their website’s volunteer page.