Dr M lauded for calling for safe sex education

A man conducts a HIV home test. The prime minister recently said the battle against HIV in the country was ‘far from over’. (Bernama pic)

PETALING JAYA: An AIDS support group has welcomed Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s call for education of the public on safe sex practices so that the fight against the spread of HIV can be carried out more effectively.

Martin Choo, general manager of the Kuala Lumpur AIDS Support Services Society, told FMT his group hoped the prime minister’s recent speech on the subject was a signal that authorities were making a positive change of direction in dealing with HIV and AIDS.

Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad delivered the speech on Mahathir’s behalf at a gala dinner on Sunday.

Mahathir called for pragmatism in the fight against HIV and public acknowledgement of the need for open discussions on safe sex practices.

“It’s refreshing to hear him speak about safer sex, discrimination in the workplace and the need to de-stigmatise HIV in Malaysian society,” Choo said.

“It is certainly the first time we’ve heard the prime minister address these pressing and often taboo concerns directly.

“We hope it signals a change in direction for Malaysia in addressing HIV risks, infection and treatment holistically by involving relevant ministries beyond the health ministry.”

HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus, causes an infection that develops over time into acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), which is a progressive failure of the immune system that can lead to life-threatening infections and cancers.

Mahathir said the battle against HIV was “far from over” and that 90% of new infections were transmitted through sex.

“While some may not want to talk about sex, it is about time we do so in the context of public health,” he said. “We cannot sit on our moral high ground and look for whom to blame for this occurrence. We need to be pragmatic. We need to continue saving lives.”

He urged all stakeholders to contribute towards strengthening HIV prevention services and warned that it was unlawful to practise workplace discrimination against HIV carriers.

Choo spoke of the availability of prevention tools in Malaysia, mentioning condoms, pre-exposure prophylaxis, post-exposure prophylaxis and treatments that can prevent those living with HIV from transmitting the virus.

“These options should be communicated to the public so that they can engage in prevention by picking the options to suit their risk profiles,” he said.

“In addition – and this is crucial – safer sex options must include comprehensive sex education in schools so the youths, who account for the bulk of new HIV cases, will learn how to protect themselves against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections as soon as they reach puberty.

“This is the progressive Malaysia we hope to see in the very near future.”

Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC) president Bakhtiar Talhah told FMT he agreed that sexual health education should be part of the school curriculum and called for an “open and honest” dialogue on sex.

This would be in line with international best practices, he added.

He said Mahathir’s speech was in line with MAC’s call for legislation to outlaw any type of discrimination at the workplace against people with HIV.

“We’ve had various statements from ministers and community leaders on eradicating the stigma and discrimination, but this is probably the first strong and clear message from the prime minister that discrimination towards people living with HIV is unacceptable in Malaysia,” he said.

The HIV epidemic in Malaysia generally involves sex workers, transgenders, drug users and sexually active male homosexuals.

Last year, the health ministry reported a 43% decline in the number of new HIV and AIDS cases in the country but an increase in infections among homosexuals and bisexuals.