KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 25 (Reuters) - Ex-convict Jonah Chan is a casualty of Malaysia's losing battle against AIDS.
In 1984, he was jailed for three years for robbery. He came out a drug addict and is now infected with the AIDS virus.
"I contracted HIV by injecting drugs. I shared needles," said 41-year-old Chan who has been in and out of a home for reforming drug addicts and convicts in Kuala Lumpur for the past 15 years.
"Drugs were cheaper in prison because there were a lot of big pushers," he explained, sitting in the living room of an old double-storey brick house he shares with 23 other residents.
Malaysia, a conservative, mainly Muslim country, has some of the world's toughest anti-drugs laws. But the HIV virus is spreading rapidly due to illegal drug use and a lack of sex education, raising fears of an epidemic.
Delivering a loud wake-up call to the government, the World Health Organisation warned last year that Malaysia was on the brink of an HIV epidemic.
Until recently, Malaysia refused to adopt policies proven successful elsewhere -- including in fellow Muslim countries Iran and Pakistan -- such as providing clean syringes to drug addicts.
At the start of 2006, HIV cases in Malaysia totalled 70,559 in a population of about 26 million, while 10,663 patients had full-blown AIDS, official data showed.
The numbers are much lower than Thailand which has 560,000 HIV patients, but Malaysian health officials are worried by the exponential rise in HIV cases.
In 2005, new AIDS cases in Malaysia totalled 1,221 compared with 233 in 1995.
By contrast, neighbouring Thailand has more than halved the number of new HIV infections over the past decade, thanks to aggressive promotion of condom use among sex workers.
"For HIV, the trend has been always upward in Malaysia and we're getting very worried," Malaysian Health Minister Chua Soi Lek, who was appointed to the post in 2004, said in an interview.
"People are in a state of denial," he added.
Only last year did the government start handing out free condoms and needles -- a move it had earlier opposed on grounds that it promoted free sex and rampant drug usage.
It now plans to spend 500 million ringgit ($136 million) on programmes to combat AIDS, including needle distribution.
HIV is most commonly spread in Malaysia by drug users, with male AIDS patients outnumbering females by about 10 to 1.
About 60 percent of those believed to have HIV were Malays -- the largest and most religiously conservative of Malaysia's ethnic groups. Most of them were unemployed.
AIDS activist groups blame inadequate enforcement of drug laws and a lack of sex education for the rapid rise in cases.
"The reality is we're losing the war," said Pax Tan, a leader of a Christian group involved in combating HIV and drug use.
The government is starting to fight back.
HIV education will soon be taught during the national service programme for youths, Chua said, after surveys showed a rise in unprotected sex and widespread ignorance about HIV among youth.
Government data showed that about a quarter of AIDS cases from 1986 to 2005 involved those between 13 to 29 years of age.
"With the funding promised by the government, we are very confident that we'll be able to see a plateau in the rate of increase, maybe by 2010 or 2009," Chua said.
Despite Malaysia's growing affluence and western trappings, the country remains outwardly conservative on sex.
Kuala Lumpur -- which started in the mid-19th century as a tin settlement with brothels, gambling booths and opium dens -- is packed with clubs brimming with drugs and alcohol but is also a place where kissing and hugging are forbidden in public parks.
With no sex education at schools, some youths believe that HIV can be transmitted by mosquitoes, fleas or bedbugs.
Religious leaders are deeply opposed to the distribution of free needles and condoms.
"(It) will encourage people to have free sex. We must address the root of the problem," said Ahmad Awang, a spokesman at the Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), the country's largest Islamic opposition party.
Instead he suggested tightening government controls on entertainment outlets and night-time curfews for youths.
Wong Kim Kong, of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship Malaysia, believes traditional values may stop the spread of AIDS rather than free condoms and needles.
"Abstinence is the most important habit that we need to develop," he said.