From the time the Human Immunodeficiency Virus was identified in 1981, it has captured our imagination like no other disease because of its scale — very quickly, people were dying from AIDS and no one knew how to combat the spread of HIV or how to cure it. Fear of the unknown made ordinarily rational human beings react in ways that were unnecessarily discriminatory, but who could blame anyone when knowledge was so scarce? All we knew about HIV at one point was that it led to AIDS and that there was no treatment for it — a diagnosis then almost certainly meant death.
Today, however, while there remains no cure or vaccine for AIDS, an HIV diagnosis is nowhere close to as damning as it once was. By taking and staying on antiretroviral therapy as soon as possible after diagnosis, people with HIV can live long and healthy lives and prevent transmitting the virus to their sexual partners. In addition, there are effective methods to prevent transmission through sex or drug use, including pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and clean needles and syringes.
Malaysia has not been spared from what is commonly acknowledged as one of humankind’s deadliest and most persistent epidemics. HIV was first detected here in 1986 and we are ranked the seventh highest in adult prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Asia after Thailand, Papua New Guinea, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia, with a 0.45% prevalence rate. According to the United Nations, Malaysia was one of the 10 countries which together accounted for over 95% of all new HIV infections in Asia-Pacific in 2016.
The news is not all bad, though. Last year, Malaysia became the first country in the World Health Organization (WHO) Western Pacific Region to be certified as having eliminated mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Additionally, since 2006, the first line of highly active antiretroviral therapy has been provided for free in government hospitals. HIV Connect, a self-paced, online learning platform that is designed for primary care physicians and other healthcare practitioners in Malaysia, was launched in September last year. A joint effort between the Malaysian AIDS Foundation (MAF) and the Malaysian Society for HIV Medicine, the platform supports doctors in the care and management of HIV/AIDS patients.
Prof Datuk Adeeba Kamarulzaman, the dean of Universiti Malaya’s Faculty of Medicine and the incoming president of the International AIDS Society, is at the forefront of HIV/AIDS research in Malaysia. To appreciate the honour that comes with the IAS appointment, one need only look at who held it previously: Nobel Prize winner Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, who is credited with discovering the virus; Helen Gayle, who served as chair of the Obama administration’s advisory council on HIV/AIDS; and Linda-Gail Bekker, president and CEO of the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation.
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