PETALING JAYA: Medical graduate Shaik Ashraf was volunteering at the Penang Family Health Development Association (FHDA) two years ago when he chanced upon someone taking an HIV test.
After speaking to the patient, who hailed from the Middle East, Ashraf grew concerned about some of this man’s fears, including if his Malaysian tourist visa would be affected if he tested positive for HIV.
He later found out that being HIV positive or carrying medicine to help combat HIV is an impediment to getting citizenship or a visa, and in places like China, authorities can blacklist you from entering.
Ashraf spent the next one-and-a-half years while waiting for his medical posting developing Burnd, an app to create awareness about HIV testing and sexual health.
He developed his own algorithm, which takes into account a person’s sexual activity, sexual orientation, the type of sex they have and whether they are aware their sexual partners have tested, to be able to deduce HIV risks.
“The major issue I noticed is that people are not aware they could be at the risk of contracting HIV,” he told FMT in a recent interview.
“For some people when they are at high risk, they assume they are at low risk and don’t take necessary precautions. What I did was to make the risks objective and to remove any forms of biases that may be present.”
He explained that some healthcare professionals and clinics “on the more conservative side” in Malaysia might not easily give HIV tests, and sometimes deem any form of sexual activity as “high risk” all the same.
Burnd, now used in 50 countries, was launched last month. It is a play on words on the burning sensation people feel when they have a sexually transmitted disease (STD).
It is now receiving brisk sales on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
Users who download the app, available for RM7.99, do not have to create an account or sign in, but only provide their personal information for the app to provide data relevant to their situation and determine their HIV and STD risk.
With information like age, gender, sexuality, sexual history and location, the app is able to provide a list of nearby clinics and hospitals with HIV and STD treatment and facilities for them.
It also includes a checklist to see if one is eligible to get pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a drug therapy to prevent HIV, as well as daily reminders for those with HIV to take their medicine and check if their viral load levels have reached an undetectable level.
The HIV epidemic in Malaysia has been concentrated among sex workers, transgenders, injecting drug users and men who have sex with other men.
Last year saw a spike in HIV infections among homosexuals and bisexuals.
Despite HIV being a primary concern in Malaysia, Ashraf decided to develop an app that would help not just Asia but the entire globe.
He said a lot of people are unaware about getting tested and that it is not limited to just here.
But Ashraf said his app should not be seen as a way to replace healthcare providers, stressing that users would still have to visit clinics and hospitals in person to validate the app’s reading of their HIV risk status.
Ashraf now considers himself an activist for the HIV cause and uses his own social media platforms to create a talking place for safe sex education and for people to reach out to him.
But one problem still remains.
“What I found odd was a lot of young Malaysians, who have their first sexual activity at 15 or 16, are scared of buying condoms,” he said, adding some ask if they require identification or need to be married.
“When I have these informal discussions on Instagram, I ask them, ‘So what is the alternative?’ and they say to have sex without condoms.
“That part seems challenging to overcome,” he said.
He said the government should incorporate more effective policies to educate the public about safe sex, as well as end workplace discrimination and misconceptions about HIV.
“There are not many places which offer anonymous HIV testing. Most of the time, anonymous HIV testings are done by community-based organisations like PT Foundation in Kuala Lumpur and FHDA in Penang.
“They (the public) still don’t know things like the undetected=untransmittable treatment as prevention campaign, about PreP and PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis, a way to prevent HIV infection after exposure to the virus).”
Ashraf also welcomed the prime minister’s recent call to end workplace discrimination for those with HIV.
“We are moving in the right direction but we should find more creative ways and look at the evidence-based policies that have been proven to work and implement it here,” he said, adding this should be able to decrease HIV cases.