CHECK IT OUT! APASWE: No. 35 (2019)

The Roles of AIDS Action & Research Group in the HIV/AIDS Prevention

Dr. Paramjit Singh Jamir Singh
Senior Lecturer
School of Social Sciences
Universiti Sains Malaysia
paramjit@usm.my

Professor Dr. Azlinda Azman
Dean School of Social Sciences
Universiti Sains Malaysia
azlindaa@usm.my

Malaysia is experiencing major social problems due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Cases of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infections were first detected in Malaysia in 1986. Since then, HIV has become one of the country’s most serious health and development challenges. By the end of 2017, the country recorded a cumulative total of 115,263 persons diagnosed with HIV infection, 22,495 of them with Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and 42,864 HIV/AIDS related deaths (Ministry of Health, 2018).

In 2006, 75 percent of reported HIV/AIDS cases in Malaysia were attributed by injection drug users (Ministry of Health, 2016). An injecting drug user is an individual who injects recreational drugs into the body through injecting equipment. Due to that, the harm reduction programme was commenced in Malaysia in October 2005 with the start-up of Methadone Maintenance Therapy (MMT), followed by Needle Syringe Exchange Programme (NSEP) on February 2006. These two main components of harm reduction programme remain the cornerstone of the Malaysian Government’s HIV prevention strategy.

In line with the National Strategic Plan, Ending AIDS (2016-2030), which aims to reduce the number of new infections by 90 percent by 2030, the AIDS Action & Research Group (AARG) has played a significant role to provide accurate HIV/AIDS information to the community. Every year, many schools, public agencies and the private institutions from Penang have invited AARG to give talks on HIV/AIDS. The AARG was established in the School of Social Sciences at the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in 1994. AARG consists of academic and non-academic staff with the aim is to prevent HIV/AIDS spreading and to help those already affected by HIV/AIDS. 

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In 2006, AARG, USM was the first Public University in Malaysia was given the mandate by the Ministry of Health (MOH) and Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC) to run the harm reduction programme in Malaysia. AARG, USM was in fact the pioneer groups that run the harm reduction program in Malaysia until now. AARG has been recognized by the MOH as the best practice site in running the harm reduction programme in the country. Currently, AARG is a referral centre for Ministry of Health and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) on HIV/AIDS prevention and harm reduction programme. In 2011, the AARG, has been given another new grants from the Ministry of Health to run a Needle and Syringe Exchange Program (NSEP) at Ipoh, Perak.

Basically, the AARG outreach workers will reach out the injecting drug users and provide them with clean needles and syringes at two locations (Georgetown, Penang and Ipoh, Perak). The harm reduction program involves collecting used needles from injection drug users and replacing them with new clean ones. AARG outreach workers also provide counselling with the hope that eventually injection drug users will switch to Methadone Maintenance Treatment (MMT). MMT is a comprehensive treatment program that involves the long-term use of methadone as an alternative to the opioid, which client was dependent. Methadone alleviates the symptoms of opioid withdrawal. Once methadone reaches a sufficient level in a client's blood, his or her cravings are reduced. Methadone is longer acting (24 to 36 hours) than most other opioids.

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The harm reduction programme has achieved its goal in the last eleven years in reducing HIV infection among IDUs in Malaysia. The number of injecting drug users being infected with the virus has dropped over the years, bringing the number of new HIV infections down. Evidently, in 2006, of all reported HIV cases, 75 % were infected through IDUs. This percentage had reduced to 4 % in 2018 (Ministry of Health, 2019).

Achieving an AIDS-free generation requires that all populations have access to HIV prevention and treatment services. Therefore AARG will always provide accurate information about HIV/AIDS and education relating to all aspects of HIV/AIDS. Activities of AARG include in organizing workshops, forums, exhibitions, and dialogs about HIV/AIDS with the many stakeholders. In addition, AARG is also provide counselling services via an HIV/AIDS telephone hotline with the intention to raise awareness and reduce stigma and discrimination to people living with HIV/AIDS, and ultimately to reduce HIV/AIDS transmissions risks in Malaysia.