With an average of 12 Malaysians testing positive for HIV each day, Malaysia has one of the fastest growing AIDS epidemics in the East Asia and Pasific region.

What is more worrying is that the trend is gaining a feminine face, mainly through heterosexsual transmission.

A new report released bt the Health Ministry and United Nations Childrens’s Fund (Unicef) yesterday revealed that the trend of new HIV infections amongst women rose drastically to 16% in 2007 from 1.2% of total new cases in 1990.

“The propotion of women reported with HIV has increased dramatically in the last decade. In 1990, only one in every 86 new HIV infections was amongst women and girls,” Sultanah Bahiyah Foundation chairperson Datuk Seri Tunku Puteri Safinaz said at the lauch of the Women and Girls Confronting HIV and AIDS in Malaysia 2008 report.

However, she said, as of December 2007, it was one in six new infections.

“Shockingly, surveys show that 2006 more housewives tested HIV-positive than sex workers,” Tunku Puteri Safinaz said, adding that there are thousands of children living in homes shadowed by HIV.

The results are a cause for concern as the vulnerability of women and children to HIV are directly linked.

She said for families affected by HIV and AIDS, the disease it self does not have so much impact as it can be kept under control for many years with effective treatment.

“The biggest impact comes from stigma. Mothers whose families are affected by HIV and AIDS are most frightened by the reactions from friends, extended family, colleagues and their communities,” she said, citing the case of a shopkeeper in Kedah who refused to allow a women with HIV to enter his shop.

She said after fear of AIDS could hurt the patients more than the disease.

Stigma can cause a person to be ostracized by friends and family. It can even cause a HIV-positive husband to disallow his wife to be tested, she said.

“Stigma can cause a woman to be so ashamed that she does not seek treatment – meaning an early death and young innocent child left without a mother.”

Tunku Puteri Safinaz said it can also cause the children to be shunned by their teachers and friends because they are infected,

Unicef representative in Malaysia Youssouf Oomar said empowering and encourraging women to be leaders in any HIV response must be the strategy of the future.

“Malaysia must ensure that gender equality and empowerment of women go hand-in-hand with HIV and AIDS prevention and care programmes,” he said.

“We need to get more women involved and get them to work together to get their voices heard.”

He said the level of awareness amongst housewives in Malaysia is not enough to create consciousness.

“The fact that there are more housewives infected with HIV than sex workers is a serious cause of concern. There should be more serious education in learning institutions where students can bring home the knowledge,” he said.

By Karen Arukesamy, New Straits Time : Friday, 05/12/2008

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