Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Poverty & SDGs

HEALTH-MALAYSIA: Condom Taboo Hampers Fight Against HIV

Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, May 24 2007 (IPS) - Lorong Haji Taib is a garbage-filled, rat-infested lane in the heart of the capital famous for its cheap sex, drugs and brawls.

Here vagrants, transvestites, drug pushers, drug addicts, sex workers and a transient population of usually well-heeled customers merge, exchange cash for drugs, get infected and carry the HIV virus into the larger population.

In the back lanes are dozens of drug addicts, many of them HIV positive from sharing infected needles and practicing unprotected sex.

Lorong Haji Taib is a hothouse for HIV infection, the sort of place where free syringes, condoms and methadone substitution therapies have a proven chance to reduce infection rates.

But conservative Muslim clerics are strongly against giving out syringes and condoms, saying that such “stupid” measures encourage promiscuity for one thing and, for another, violate the tenets of Islam.

“Abstinence is the way to do it…we must bring them back to the Islamic fold,” Mahfuz Omar, a senior leader in the fundamentalist Pan Malaysian Islamic Party or PAS, told IPS. Infection rates are reaching alarming levels.

In the 1980s infection was limited to a few hundred people, but now it is well over 83,000. By the next decade, the United Nations estimates infection rates will hit the 300,000 mark unless very tough measures are taken now.

The figures have frightened official Malaysia into announcing bold measures – RM300 million (88.5 million US dollars) until 2010 to battle the threat, allowing the issuing of free needles and condoms and methadone substitution.

But what is sorely missing, critics say, is the political will to face off the clerics and carry through the unorthodox measures.

The government blames 75 percent of all infection on unprotected sex and sharing of infected needles, and yet it shies away from actively promoting condoms as a key element in reducing infections.

“It is best to flood places like Lorong Haji Taib with free syringes and condoms,” said Mark (second name suppressed), a volunteer working with vagrants and people with HIV/AIDS.

“The infection rate can be cut down by 70 percent if we can stop drug addicts from sharing needles and persuade sex workers and their clients to use condoms,” he told IPS. “Abstinence is an admirable goal but in reality it is just a dream.”

The government is caught in a bind between taking radical measures to cut down infection and satisfying Muslim conservatives who form a powerful support bank for the ruling National Front coalition government.

Earlier this month, a senior officer tasked with combating the spread of HIV/AIDS shocked many by saying the government cannot promote condom use openly for fear of being accused of encouraging promiscuity.

“The government understands that condom use prevents the transmission of HIV but could not openly support it. We fear the country will be perceived as advocating promiscuity in the mainly Muslim nation,” said Jalal Halil Khalil, senior health ministry official, during an HIV/AIDS awareness function.

He said parades and other mass campaigns to highlight condom use or discuss sex, as seen in neighbouring Thailand, remain taboo here.

In another development, Malaysian AIDS Council President Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman admitted last week that although they had been able to carry out education and awareness drives, “it has been impossible so far to put on a big generalised campaign, using the mass media for example.”

She criticised anti-vice laws under which condoms are used as incriminating evidence to charge sex workers.

Malaysia’s health minister Dr Chua Soi Lek clarified quickly that the government is committed to reducing HIV infection rates “with the help of NGOs.”

Malaysia has some of the toughest laws against drug trafficking, and yet drugs are easily available both in prison and outside, testimonies by drugs addicts prove.

Malaysian schools do not include sex education or condom use in curricula. Except for some urban, western educated families, the rest of the country goes by without any kind of sex education that might defeat sex-related diseases and prevent teenage pregnancies.

“Not a day passes without cases of teenage pregnancies, abandoned babies and abduction and rapes reported in the newspapers,” said Dr Irene Fernandez, executive director of Tenaganita, a rights NGO.

“The World Health Organisation (WHO) has already warned in 2006 that Malaysia is on the brink of an HIV epidemic. We can’t be in denial any longer,” she told IPS. “Just worrying about it is not enough. Where are the tough measures?”

About 15,000 children have already been made orphans by AIDS in Malaysia, the WHO said.

Immediately after the WHO warning the government launched a five-year national plan in 2006, which includes providing drug substitution therapy and needle exchange programmes for drug addicts, and free anti-retroviral drugs at government clinics, especially for women and children.

But the move to issue syringes and condoms was first suspended and later handed over to NGOs because of strong opposition from conservatives.

What critics want is for the government to confront the tragic consequences, abandon its tepid policies and actively promote the distribution of free needles and condoms to the target groups.

The level of ignorance about sex and condom use and the causes of HIV infection can be disconcerting. “Some even believe HIV can be transmitted by touching, mosquito bites and by sharing public toilets,” said a programme officer who declined to be named.

The combination of widespread ignorance of sex diseases and a vibrant nightlife with free-flowing alcohol in the capital often comes as a shock to first time visitors.

“Sometimes the most practical things turn out to be the hardest to do like promoting the use of condoms to fight HIV/AIDS,” wrote the influential ‘New Straits Times’, last week. “Let’s stop the hypocrisy. Use of condoms may not be the best answer for controlling AIDS, but it is one of the most practical,” the daily commented.

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