Only 50% of people with HIV seek treatment and here’s why, says AIDS council

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KUALA LUMPUR: Approximately 100,000 Malaysians are affected by HIV/AIDS but almost half of them fail to seek treatment due to shame and fear of social stigma despite government initiatives to provide free medication, according to an AIDS body under the health ministry.

The Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC) said some were also in denial or resigned to what they believed to be fate.

“A lot of them probably think they’re going to die anyway, so they don’t bother. Many of them are drug users who might not have stable jobs, and some of them are homeless.

“When you put all the factors together, that’s where you get the 50% of those who don’t get treatment,” MAC president Bakhtiar Talhah told FMT.

Although frontline treatment for HIV, which costs about RM400 a month, is given for free at government hospitals, Bakhtiar said MAC often came across people who refused to seek treatment at the closest medical centre. Instead, he said, they preferred to travel to hospitals further away to avoid running into people they knew.

“There’s still a lot of stigma and discrimination that people with HIV in Malaysia face.”

There are currently some 3,300 reported cases of HIV infections a year, down from 6,000 to 7,000 a decade ago.

The majority of the 3,300 cases were sexually transmitted, although Bakhtiar said the spread of HIV in Malaysia was initially driven by drug use.

“Sex was never the main factor in Malaysia,” he said. “We had a very unique case of the HIV pandemic.”

With initiatives such as needle exchange programmes, which provide drug addicts with clean needles, the number of cases involving HIV infection through needle-sharing dropped by 90%, he said.

Bakhtiar said through MAC’s work on the ground, it had discovered that the urban population was generally more open to HIV/AIDS-related issues than those in rural areas.

“But at the same time, we have been surprised by the acceptance of certain initiatives by those in rural areas,” he added.

“For example, drug use is probably more rampant in rural areas, plantations and fishing communities. But we found that because the family or community lanes are very strong in those areas, they actually support our initiatives.”

Asean deputy secretary-general for the Asean Socio-Cultural Community Kung Phoak meanwhile told FMT he was optimistic about the overall HIV rates in the region.

He said there had been great progress in the area and a drop in the number of people affected by HIV/AIDS.

Bakhtiar, however, was less confident.

“If you’re looking at absolute numbers, we have been able to get the number of infections down,” he said.

“But compared to what other regions have done and how they have performed, we are way behind.”

He told FMT that Asia was in fact the worst performing region in this matter, below Latin America and Africa.

“We have to ask why. What is it that they are doing which we are not? In that sense, there’s still so much for us to do.”