Adeeba1

On a quest to end AIDS in Malaysia

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SHE has been at the helm of Malaysian AIDS Foundation (MAF) for 12 years.

But MAF chairman Prof Datuk Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman has been involved in HIV work for more than 25 years from during her time at the Monash Medical Centre and Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital in Melbourne.

Among the first things on her to-do list when she returned to Malaysia was set up the infectious diseases unit at University Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC).

The good doctor was also Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC) president and during her leadership, played a key role in obtaining governmental approval for harm reduction to be implemented in Malaysia.

This resulted in HIV infections among injecting drug users to decrease drastically and currently accounts for only five per cent of new infections last year compared to 91 per cent through sexual transmission.

In recent years, she has been one busy woman wearing many hats, including as dean of the Universiti Malaya medical faculty, revamping the medical undergraduate curriculum, leading a National Medical Specialist Curriculum and Training project looking to reform drug policy and continues to speak her mind in defence of people living with HIV (PLHIV).

“Anywhere in the world, it has been shown that the HIV response is most effective when everybody plays a role,” she told Malay Mail, ahead of the Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award Gala Dinner on Dec 16.

“It is great when people come together.”

Dr Adeeba also said it was important to correct misconceptions that resulted in stigma and discrimination against PLHIV.

“We need to support the key populations while seeking to prevent HIV regardless of whether they are LGBT, drug users or spouses with HIV.

“The noise created (on LGBT) is not only hurtful, it is harmful.”

She said not only was there sufficient science to prove that HIV could be prevented and treated, the disease should be treated as a public health issue.

“We need to keep on pushing because it is the right thing to do and there is a real opportunity to make a difference and put an end to the continued spread of the disease. We have the tools to prevent it. We need to expand testing and usage of pre-exposure prophylaxis and antiretroviral treatment. It is inhumane to not be doing enough.”

When it came to getting tested for HIV, she said among the factors that led to people being reluctant to go for it were fear of stigma, lack of knowledge of the treatment available, fear of being sacked from one’s job and and being ostracised by their family and friends.

She assured that PLHIV were able to lead normal lives and not infect others if they adhered to treatment and had achieved viral suppression.

The country, she said had taken many steps to stem the spread of the disease that resulted in the decline of infections among people who use drugs and become the first country in the Western Pacific to reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis to the point that it is no longer a public health problem.

“But more needs to be done,” she said.

“Sadly, the UMMC ward is still full with those who come in very late. They have advanced disease, all kinds of opportunistic infections that could have been prevented if they had gotten tested and on treatment early.

“What is really upsetting is many come too late. We really should not be having young people die of AIDS related illnesses in 2018”.

When it came to funding MAC’s efforts in the mission to end AIDS in Malaysia, she said there were many stakeholders involved in this including MAF, corporations, the Health Ministry and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

She added that MAF and MAC were fortunate enough to obtain enough funding from the Health Ministry and other partners to stay afloat compared to other non-governmental organisations.

“The Red Ribbon Gala (Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award Gala Dinner) had been our main annual event and we hope that it still will be high on the KL social event calendar.

“We didn’t have it for some years because of unfavourable economic conditions.”

She added that the initial plan was not to replicate the “high octane” Red Ribbon Gala but once word got out that the event would be held, corporate sponsors came forward to offer sponsorship.

“And now, we have a full-fledged gala. The Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award is being given to individuals or corporations that contributed significantly to the cause of ending AIDS.”

In terms of getting the corporate sector involved in the fight against HIV, the foundation has also formed the Malaysian Business Consortium on HIV/AIDS (MBCH).

MBCH allows the private sector to help mitigate the impact of HIV/AIDS at the workplace and create as many safe spaces as possible for employees and professionals living with HIV.

The most recent initiative is working on a HIV/AIDS workplace legislation with support from the Global Fund that hopefully will put an end to discrimination at the workplace.

On current and ongoing projects that she is involved in, Dr Adeeba said that this included being the president-elect for the International AIDS Society (she takes over in 2020 and will be the first Asian to helm the position).

She is also involved in HIV research at the Centre of Excellence of Research in AIDS that she established at UM.

She is working with Petaling Jaya MP Maria Chin Abdullah on a project at the Kampung Medan’s People Housing Programme involving 50 families to address non-communicable and life style diseases.

Students and staff from UM medical faculty work with Chin’s volunteers to support the families on various aspects of healthy living and prevention and care of NCDs.

“Maybe if I ever succeed in ending AIDS, I will move on to ending NCDs (non-communicable diseases),” she said, laughing.

Malay Mail is the media partner for the Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award Gala Dinner.

Tables are available in the following categories: diamond (RM50,000); platinum (RM30,000) and gold (RM20,000). Contact Nurshaliza Manaf (liza@mac.org.my or 014-504 8927) or Azahemy Abdullah (azahemy@mac.org.my or 016-646 5874) for details.