Monday, December 01 2003

7,000 more new cases this year

By Koh Lay Chin

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 30: Malaysia can be considered as having an “early HIV/AIDS epidemic” and if more effective interventions are not put in place now, it would be “too late”, Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC) vice-president Dr Christopher Lee said today.
He said the latest estimates showed there would be more than 7,000 new HIV/AIDS cases this year and the trend is worrying.
"This is despite all we have done. It means that the situation is not under control. Although it is not increasing at an alarming rate, the figure is still climbing and this means we have to be very cautious." A joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) prognosis recently stated that if Malaysia carried on the way it did in dealing with the HIV/AIDS issue, the country would face a generalised epidemic (rather than that which is confined to certain groups only) within two years.
UNAIDS claimed Malaysia had the fifth fastest growing epidemic in Asia and the Pacific.
Dr Lee said things were rather complacent in Malaysia as there was a tendency to compare figures with countries like Thailand or Myanmar, which had much higher cases.
"But when you get to those levels the cost is already too high. At the moment, it seems to be in focal groups like intravenous drug users as figures still show that they are the highest infected.
"However, what is even more worrying is HIV/AIDS through heterosexual contact has been steadily increasing and that is the link we are most fearful about. That is the link that will result in the spread of HIV to mainstream society," he said.
Citing the recent 2003 Durex Global Sex Survey, he said, the survey showed that nearly half of young Malaysians aged 16 to 45 years would sleep with a new partner who refused to use a condom.
"If that is happening then it means that youths do not know about HIV/AIDS and if they are aware of it, then it is apparent they are not taking precautions." He said there was a need to limit the spread of HIV/AIDS among intravenous drug users but it was also necessary to address the level of unsafe sex as a whole.
"People do not really see the need to invest in HIV/AIDS programmes yet. I wish more ministries would play an active role in addressing this problem and ask themselves how they can help," he said.
The Health Ministry and MAC were the two main agencies addressing the issue, while ministries like the Women and Family Development Ministry and Human Resources Ministry had also contributed. "The Education Ministry is addressing the issue through various levels but we hope they would be able to proceed faster in some aspects. We wish the National Unity and Social Development Ministry would also help us," he said.
Things would also be better, he said, if there were more public figures speaking out on HIV/AIDS awareness as in Western countries. "That would be great, and not just English and Malay speaking public figures. We also need to reach out to the vernacular speaking population as they should also have equal access to knowledge on HIV/AIDS." In 2002, almost 7,000 new infections were reported, the highest number ever in a single year.
In comparison, Australia had 800 newly-diagnosed cases for 2002 compared with Malaysia which had almost nine times that number, for an epidemic that started later than theirs.