Malaysia is in “deep denial” about its HIV crisis, according to a top researcher in the country.
In an interview with ScienceMag.org, Adeeba Kamarulzaman said, “The real problems are now with prevention for MSM [men who have sex with men], transgenders, and sex workers. There’s almost no kind of nationwide program to make any dent in the epidemic among these populations.”
Kamarulzaman, who earned her medical degree in Australia, is the University of Malaya’s dean of the faculty of medicine, where she specializes in infectious diseases. She is the author of over a hundred studies regarding HIV/AIDS in Malaysia.
Her advocacy for harm-reduction policies have been called vital in reducing the rate of new HIV infections in IV drug users. She led her first campaign in 2003, with the goal of moving the focus of drug treatment off of punishment and towards compassion. She started by gathering information regarding the connection between HIV and drug users, who made up 76 percent of new infections in Malaysia.
Though Kamarulzaman’s data was comprehensive, the police and the National Anti-Drugs Agency were unconvinced until she used her connections to Malaysian royalty to arrange a meeting with the Cabinet Committee on Drugs. Her efforts led to the establishment of a project aimed at getting illegal drug users onto methadone, which can be taken orally and makes opioid withdrawal more tolerable.
The initial program proved to be a success, and in 2010 mandatory drug rehabilitation center stays began to be replaced by centers for voluntary “cure and care.”
Kamarulzaman stated that the harm-reduction approach has done well because it complements the “values about the preservation of life” in Islam, the state religion of Malaysia—but those same values make it difficult to find support for programs to reduce infection via sexual contact. “It’s a little bit more difficult to argue for sex work and MSM along those veins,” she said.
According to data from the Malaysian Ministry of Health, small-scale surveys showed that between 2009 and 2012, the percentage of MSM with HIV shot up from 3.9 percent to 12.6 percent.
In Malaysia, same-sex sexual activity is a criminal act that can result in a prison sentence of up to twenty years, and under Sharia law some states allow imprisonment for Muslims convicted of “impersonating” another sex.
An official from the Malaysian AIDS Council told Gay Asia News, “New HIV infections via sexual transmission have outnumbered drug injection for the past 3 years, and until today, the government has not done anything new, and they are fully aware of what is happening.”
Kamarulzaman maintains that the government “urgently” needs to make a stand on the issue, but it stands to be an uphill battle. Many Muslims feel that protecting the LGBT community in Malaysia would be “un-Islamic,” and organizations such as the Muslim rights group Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia have vowed to fight against any proposed civil rights.
Gay Asia News reported that council chairman Dr. Aznan Hasan said that people who “practice same-sex relationships” must be punished, not protected.
The declaration was made in response to a statement by the National Unity Consultative Council Law and Policy’s committee chairman Datuk Mujahid Yusof Rawa, who said that “a person could not be discriminated because of his sexual orientation.”
The committee recently drafted the Racial and Religious Hate Crimes Bill, the National Harmony and Reconciliation Bill, and the National Harmony and Reconciliation Commission Bill.
Aznan said, “Accepting them who are LGBT and not taking any action against them will be like recognizing their wayward sexual wishes and wants…When one is convicted of LGBT practices, he or she has to go through the necessary judgment process, not because of discrimination but because they have done it.
“He or she cannot be left just like that after doing the crime.”