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MALAYSIA: Lack of Regulation Blamed for HIV Upsurge among Women

Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 11 2009 (IPS) - Melinda Teoh, 42, had a life that could easily be the envy of many except that it took an unexpected turn just when she thought she had it all.

Two lovely children, a well-paying, high-profile job, a suburban home in an upscale neighbourhood, expensive cars and just about all the comforts she could ask for.

Then the death knell began to toll. A routine visit to the family doctor in June 2008 revealed Teoh (not her real name) had early-stage HIV infection.

“I have been married for 15 years and never had sex outside marriage,” she told IPS in a rare interview arranged through her lawyers. “It is tragic but true … my husband infected me,” she said. “I am crushed.”

Teoh is just one of a growing number of Malaysian women infected with the dreaded disease. A World Health Organization (WHO) report released in November revealed an alarming rate—30 percent of all new HIV cases in Malaysia are women, mostly married, who contracted the infection from their husbands.

Married men are bringing home the disease and infecting their spouses, said health experts.

The figure—representing a whopping jump of 400 percent from five years ago—has set the alarm bells ringing among government officials, medical professionals, HIV/AIDS activists and WHO. Homosexuals and drug users have been displaced by women as the groups considered most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.

“It has brought a new set of issues that we need to deal with and it is becoming more complex and urgent now,” United Nations resident coordinator for Malaysia Kamal Malhotra said at the press briefing during the launch of the Red Carnival, an annual event marking World AIDS Day, early this month.

“It is no longer multiple-sex partners or homosexuals (that are the sources of infection). What was once considered safe sex in the home is now the main source of infection,” said Hisham Hussein, chairman of PT Foundation, an activist group involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS and which was behind the event.

Although no in-depth research has been undertaken yet on the new alarming trend, medical experts and rights activists are pinning the blame on poor HIV/AIDS awareness among young people and husbands engaging the services of sex workers.

While the overt sex business in the country is loosely regulated, a huge unregulated, underground sex industry has evolved in Malaysia, fueled by women from across Asia and Eastern Europe entering the country as tourists only to end up as sex workers.

“They enter, leave and return in a regular cycle,” opposition lawmaker Kulasegaran Murugesan told IPS. “There is very little medical check, regulation or information, unlike in Thailand, where the industry is very strictly regulated.”

“Men resort to their (women’s) services as part of business, networking and socialisation,” he said, adding they take the infection home and infect their wives.

Malaysia has a lax entry policy that facilitates the entry of foreign sex workers, said sources. Tourism is the country’s second biggest money- spinner, with up to 20 million people visiting the country annually.

According to WHO about 85,000 people have been infected with HIV/AIDS in Malaysia since the virus was discovered among homosexuals in the mid- 1990s. Some 15 new cases are recorded daily and approximately 300 die from the disease annually.

There are at present 33.4 million people around the world who are living with HIV/AIDS. Nearly three million cases were registered in 2008, WHO said.

Together with genuine tourists, undocumented migrant workers and sex workers disguised as students also enter the country in large numbers, exploiting legal loopholes in the country’s immigration policy and helped by official corruption.

Student visas are easy to obtain and some colleges merely exist to enroll “students” for money yet hold no classes.

Another source of male/husband HIV infection is cheap, organised tours that take advantage of budget airline tickets offered by numerous low-cost airlines that dot the Asian skyline.

Return air tickets can be bought for as low as 18 ringgits (5 U.S. dollars), said a HIV/AIDS activist, adding there was nothing but “pure, unregulated sex” in the city.

Health experts said a former airbase in a South-east Asian country is a hotspot for HIV/AIDS and is a popular destination exclusively for Malaysian men.

“Our own early investigations show a connection between infection of ignorance housewives, cheap Asian travel and unregulated sex in foreign countries,” he said, declining to be named because of the official anger.

“The findings are preliminary but changing demography, cheap travel, an unregulated sex industry and a new generation ignorant of HIV/AIDS are all coming together to infect innocent housewives,” said a former health official and a leading HIV/AIDS expert.

“There is an urgent need for in-depth research at a regional level,” he said. “The new infection trend is fueled by national and regional factors…. It is unique.”

While on one hand sex workers are entering the country from across the world and with ease, Malaysian males – married and otherwise – are like the Japanese three decades ago, leaving the country in huge numbers looking for cheap sex, he said.

Health experts said that while ignorance is a contributory factor to the upsurge of HIV/AIDS, the major culprit is still the lack of regulation by authorities across the region over the factors triggering the spread of the disease, especially among innocent victims like Teoh.

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