MONDAY, JULY 4, 2005

In Malaysia, a battle erupts in AIDS fight

By Evelyn Rusli

KUALA LUMPUR Alarmed by the rising number of AIDS cases, the Malaysian government has announced a plan to distribute condoms, needles and methadone treatment for drug users, igniting opposition from the conservative Islamic community here.
Muslim clerics have strongly criticized the plan, worth $40 million, saying that it would encourage drug abuse and extramarital sex and that it violated Islamic law.
"When you give free condoms and free needles, you give drug abusers the motivation to engage in risky behavior," said Mahfoz Omar, a leader of the Islamic Party of Malaysia, an opposition political party. "Why should we give the people's money to those that do not have the will for life?"
Local AIDS groups and the conservative Malaysian government, led by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, an Islamic scholar, disagree. While the government had rejected plans to distribute condoms or needles, it now argued that dramatic steps were justified because the AIDS problem had reached a critical level, health officials said.
"When the condition reaches an epidemic level, unconventional methods are necessary," the health minister, Chua Soi Lek, said in an interview Sunday. The government argues that the new policies do not violate Islamic law because in cases of emergency, people can break rules to survive.
About 15,000 children have already been made orphans by AIDS in Malaysia, and the country is on the brink of an AIDS epidemic, the World Health Organization has said.
The Health Ministry has identified 64,000 people with HIV or AIDS, but government officials and the United Nations fear that the number of HIV cases is closer to 300,000.
In Malaysia, addressing the problem of drug abuse is an important step in the fight against AIDS because 75 percent of those with HIV or AIDS are drug users, according to the Malaysian AIDS Council, a nongovernmental AIDS group.
In the past, the government has shunned needle-exchange programs in favor of abstinence programs. But 70 percent to 90 percent of drug users who followed the government's abstinence program returned to drug abuse, according to a study in 2004 by the Burnet's Institute Center for Harm Reduction, a research group based in Australia. "It was a wake-up call for the government," a Malaysian Aids Council official, Sangreta Kaur, said.
The Malaysian government plans to start the first phase of its new AIDS program in October by offering methadone drug therapy, a treatment that weans users off their addictions by using methadone as a substitute, said the country's health minister, Chua.
In January, the government plans to provide condoms and start needle-exchange programs at four or five nongovernmental sites.
But as the government pushes ahead with its AIDS plan, a sensitive debate over whether the policies violate Islamic law looms in a country where more than 60 percent of the population is Muslim.

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