HIV/AIDS in Malaysia: An exciting harm-reduction project

Elisabeth Powelson

By Elisabeth Powelson

Elisabeth is a Human Rights Center Fellow and a grad student in the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program. She is in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, helping to lay the groundwork for a prison-based syringe exchange and condom-distribution project.

Today was my first day going to service sites. I spent the morning at the Malaysian AIDS Council, which distributes money for HIV/AIDS projects from private donors as well as the government.

What’s interesting is that the community here has been implementing methadone clinics and syringe-exchange programs, as well as services in prison — very quickly rolling out major harm-reduction interventions. Stigma around HIV seems much greater than in the U.S., however.

I got my first taste of some of the dynamics in play during my flight from Taipei. Sitting next to me was an older Chinese gentleman sitting next to me. I learned that he was from Singapore originally and now lives in Canada (which has very progressive drug-use policies). He was very worried that I was traveling alone to Malaysia and that I was planning to get a taxi and to an apartment I had never seen.

When I told him that I would be working on a project concerning HIV prevention, his first response was “Just be careful don’t touch them.” I left out the part about prison at that point, as he seemed worried enough already. Although there is stigma in the U.S. surrounding HIV, it is usually the exception rather than the rule, and we have government protection against discrimination. Here there is no such protection and often very little family support for those with the virus.

Today I visited the Malaysian AIDS Council, which works on harm reduction interventions. They get money from the government and disperse it, so that the government is not seen as supporting people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA). There is very limited access to antiretrovirals (ARVs).

I also visited a service center that provides a syringe-exchange program and a place for the homeless to go during the day (the center is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.), as well as meals. It seemed to be a very good thing. But they can’t get a doctor to work with them, so they are unable to administer any medications — making it very hard to deal extensively with medical problems.

Outside the needle exchange, the police were waiting to harass people exiting the center, in order to receive bribes.. Apparently this is an almost-daily occurrance.

It’s been a really interesting beginning. I’m looking forward to doing interviews next week and hopefully getting a better idea of what I can do to help change policy. I’ve also been informed to be prepared for the caning next week, which takes place next to the research office. I will let you know how that goes.

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One Response to HIV/AIDS in Malaysia: An exciting harm-reduction project

  1. John Swartzberg says:

    Hi Lis,
    I just heard that you were robbed. I do hope you’re OK. Is there anything I or the program can do?

    John