THE Sarawak Aids Concern Society (SACS) is aiming to create greater public awareness of the need to help people living with the human immunodeficiency virus (PLHIV), said its president Dr Yuwana Podin.
She said the public needs to be more conscious of how HIV is transmitted, the importance of protected sex and getting tested if in doubt of their condition, and seeking treatment if they tested positive.
She said based on data reported in 2018 and from the state Health Department from 1989 to 2015, there had been 2,178 HIV infections with 480 resulting in death.
“As of December 2018, the HIV notification rate is 8.7 per 100,000 persons – lower than the national rate of 10.9. But do bear in mind what is reported is only the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
Dr Yuwana said SACS, a non-profit organisation in advocacy work specifically related to HIV/AIDS in Sarawak, is instrumental in reducing the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV in the state and as such, it’s unfair for some quarters to portray SACS as supporting the sex industry.
“However, the most important thing to remember though is that help is available for those tested positive. There’s still hope,” she stressed.
Dr Yuwana said most people still associated HIV with the negative perception of a certain lifestyle, leading to stereotyping, but she also noted that the public in Kuching was becoming more accepting and compassionate than five to 10 years ago.
“Stigmatisation against HIV is a stumbling block to fighting HIV. Therefore, the public needs to take time to understand and have compassion.”
She said studies had shown that PLHIV could live like any individuals so long as they adhered to the anti-retroviral treatment regime prescribed.
“We acknowledge that stigmatisation and discrimination faced by our clients and SACS stem from the lack of understanding of HIV/AIDS and the nature of our work. Hence, SACS strives to work harder in spreading awareness on HIV/AIDS and educating the public on the importance of screening.
“While it has been quite a lonely and bumpy ride for SACS, we have been fortunate to have the support of the Malaysian AIDS Council, the Malaysian AIDS Foundation, the Ministry of Health, the state Health Department and its Kuching office, other government agencies, our fellow NGOs, corporate bodies, volunteers, staff, and friends to ensure continuity in our fight against the disease in Sarawak. We’re truly grateful for all their support.”
She added that as an organisation taking a non-judgemental and non-moralistic position, SACS would withhold any critical opinions on all the key (high risk) affected persons it was looking after.
“As it is, stigmatisation and discrimination by the community around us have complicated our work in reducing the transmission of HIV and STIs in Sarawak.
“The transmission of STIs can only be mitigated if society casts aside condescending views on the key affected population (high-risk group). This is so that we can continue to screen them or any individuals at risk and refer those tested positive for treatment as soon as possible.
“Also, stigmatisation and discrimination have compounded our efforts in helping PLHIV who need care and support. Due to negative public views, many of PLHIV self-stigmatise, causing some to doubt their self-worth and even afraid to seek treatment.”
Dr Yuwana said the government had been very supportive in channelling funds to HIV and STI prevention programmes, adding that this was evidenced by Malaysians in the first line for antiretroviral therapy getting the treatment free from any government clinics or hospitals.
She revealed the government was working closely with NGOs like SACS to raise public awareness of HIV/AIDS and the importance of testing and was also supportive of training SACS outreach workers for preliminary testing, using rapid test kit (RTK).
“SACS goes into communities where government agencies cannot. As the key affected population is usually afraid to come out, we go in to raise awareness, get them tested and help refer them to clinics for further testing and treatment.
“As for PLHIV, the clinics link us up with them so that we can provide help where the clinics cannot, especially on socio-economic issues.”
Dr Yuwana said SACS offered free HIV testing with the rapid test kits for which the public could call or WhatsApp SACS.
According to her, testing can be done either at the SACS centre or at any place one feels comfortable with the designated outreach workers.
There will be pre- and post-test counselling to prep individuals for what is to be expected. On getting the results, SACS outreach workers will provide as much information and help as possible.
Positive cases will be referred to the government clinics that SACS partners with for confirmation and if the results are confirmed after further testing, the SACS care and support team of will usually be called to assess social support if required.
SACS is a partner organisation of the Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC). Formed on May 19, 1998, based on recommendations by the Sarawak AIDS Network (SAN), it aims to educate the public about the facts and myths regarding HIV/AIDS to reduce the stigma attached to it and promote effective preventative measures through non-judgmental, non-discriminatory and holistic approaches. The executive committee (exco) members consist of volunteers.
“Knowledge alone is not sufficient in stopping the spread of the virus. Social conditions such as discrimination, stigmatisation of marginalised groups and unequal gender power are all part of the problem,” Dr Yuwana said.
“Hence, over the years, SACS has been conducting programmes and topics on preventive education and awareness; awareness among youths (including students from institutions of higher learning); key affected population; general population; rural communities and support.”
To assist PLHIV in Sarawak, Teratak Kasih Tok Nan (TKTN) has been operational since March 2017, serving as a Kuching one-stop support centre, providing integrated HIV prevention and care services to patients, including underprivileged children and women.
Among the services provided are the halfway house for accommodation; short-term transition for underprivileged individuals from the interior of Sarawak seeking HIV treatment at Sarawak General Hospital (SGH); free transportation for eligible outstation individuals and referral services.
Dr Yuwana said PLHIV referrals would receive treatment at SGH and counselling programmes arranged for them and their families.
“Whenever needed, the centre helps refer PLHIV to the relevant government or non-governmental agencies or religious bodies for support required.
“On top of that, the centre provides a safe space for peer support to PLHIV living in isolation due to stigmatisation and discrimination and also conducts programmes on life skills, personal care and literacy to help them lead an independent life and contribute back to the society.
“There are also other types of ad hoc support. Depending on the needs of patients and availability of funding, SACS sometimes provide daily essential provisions such as milk powder, school supplies, and other needs as and when these are requested.
TKTN is located at Kuarters Padi, Jalan Crookshank, 93000 Kuching. The contact number is 082-523118.
According to Dr Yuwana, SACS also engages in strategic partnerships with universities (public and private), schools (primary and secondary), other non-governmental agencies, societies, clubs, hospitals, clinics, governmental departments, corporate bodies and any individuals who like to collaborate with the Society.
There are now two SACS teams serving the community – one carrying out the Harm Reduction programme by reaching out to the key affected population while the other providing care and support for PLHIV.
As part of this programme, funded by a Health Ministry grant channelled through the Malaysian AIDS Council, SACS conducts outreach work for the key affected population by raising awareness on HIV/AIDS and STIs and offering free community-based testing for HIV and syphilis, she added.
SACS is situated on the 2nd Floor, Lot 1609, Block 10, KTLD, Jalan Batu Lintang, 93200 Kuching. The contact number is 082-233 173 and the email address [email protected]