Inadequate knowledge and awareness of HIV/AIDS is an obstacle to preventing the spread of the disease in the community, and is strongly linked to the negative perception of people towards those living with HIV.
Community AIDS Service Penang (CASP) founder and chairperson, Prof Ismail Baba, gave a virtual talk on “HIV/AIDS: Trends, Risks and Prevention” on 1 April 2022. About 100 people attended the event jointly organised by WOU’s Centre for Foundation Studies (CSFS) and the Drug Prevention Association of Malaysia (PEMADAM).
Prof Ismail shared that AIDS is the advanced stage of HIV in which a person’s immune system is too weak to fight off other infections, eventually leading to death if not treated.
He said individuals become infected with the HIV virus in three ways – unprotected sexual intercourse; transmission from mother to infant (in the womb, at birth and through breastfeeding); and sharing of drug injection needles/syringes.
“The virus can also be spread through blood transfusion if the donor is HIV-positive but is unaware since the window period, that is the timeframe between contraction of the HIV virus and detection of the infection, can take up to six months,” he added.
He highlighted the various HIV antibody tests, such as the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), which is followed by the Western Blot test to confirm diagnosis, along with the rapid antibody/antigen test done with a finger prick and the oral fluid self-test, both of which produce results in 30 minutes or less.
Prof Ismail cited a 2016 study by the Ministry of Health on the ‘HIV & AIDS Epidemic in Malaysia’, which found that ages 20-29 have the highest percentage of reported HIV cases at 40%, followed by 30-39 years at 31% and 40-49 years at 16%. Mothers with HIV have a 30% probability of giving birth to a HIV-positive infant, and he therefore encouraged infected pregnant women to take azidothymidine (AZT) to reduce the odds by 8-15%.
He said the symptoms of HIV include muscle aches and pains, fever, sore throat and cough, and swollen lymph nodes, which are indicators of various other illnesses as well. He remarked that it is critical to get tested if they engage in high-risk activities for HIV transmission.
He also mentioned the emotional distress of individuals living with HIV. “They go through denial, anger, bargaining, and finally acceptance,” he said. Many of them can be in denial for years because of their limited understanding of the virus, and so counselling is very important for support.
Prof Ismail urged parents to play an important role in HIV/AIDS education by exposing their children to the issue. “The country must establish a social policy where HIV/AIDS and sex education are taught in the schools,” he said. He also recommended enacting a social policy to eradicate the stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS, including businesses refusing to hire eligible candidates with HIV.
During Q & A, he informed that there are more than 50 non-governmental organisations that partner with the Malaysian AIDS Council. The public can refer to the PEMADAM website if they wish to contact the NGOs for information or to talk to their experts.