2 Notable Humanitarians, On The How, Where & Why We Are Closer To Ending AIDS
The race is on to end AIDS by 2030. Led by UNAIDS, countries are pooling together for a fast-track cure of this devastating epidemic. In Malaysia, prominent figures have invested and dedicated their lives to HIV causes – just recently, Tun Dr Siti Hasmah lent her power to a gala ceremony, with an award named after her. And that’s just one of countless fundraising events channeled to AIDS elimination. Recent studies show that AIDS-related deaths have decreased by half as of 2017, all thanks to advanced treatment as well as awareness. In a discussion with 2 proponents of HIV prevention in Malaysia, Andrew Tan; the vice president of KLASS, and Professor Dato’ Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman; chairman of MAF, we tackled the hot topics under the Ending AIDS slogan, like how HIV tests work, where to get tested, and the life-saving advantages of early detection.
Let’s start by describing how HIV tests work, and what is involved?
Andrew: HIV tests check the presence of HIV antibodies in the bloodstream. These antibodies are the body’s natural defense mechanism. HIV screening tests can be done by drawing blood and testing it in a lab – Rapid Test Kits (RTKs) help accelerate results. Most RTKs involve pricking your finger and dropping a blood sample onto a testing window. Newer RTKs are as simple as swabbing between the teeth and gum. But these are only preliminary tests and still require blood-drawn confirmation tests in a hospital or clinic.
Prof Dato’ Dr Adeeba: The body’s HIV antibodies are produced in response to infection with the virus and help fight infection, too. They can be detected as early as 2 weeks in some people, and in more than 99.9% of people by 12 weeks. An antibody test at 4 weeks will detect 95% of infections.
What’s the main challenge in getting people to start testing?
Andrew: The main challenge in encouraging people to choose Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) is their fear, stemmed from a lack of awareness and knowing where to get tested. These very real fears can make anyone convince themselves that “It’s better not to know”. We have been encouraging everyone to #gettested for some time now. This year’s World AIDS Day theme of #knowyourstatus is an increasingly personal message to each individual. It speaks of a greater awareness of one’s own risk behaviours and risk factors. A strong message in this new era is that we will not tolerate discrimination of any kind.
Prof Dato’ Dr Adeeba: The fear of getting a positive result and the consequences of it is I think what deters people from coming forward to have an HIV test. The fear of being ostracised, losing their jobs and fear of the disease itself. What has been done and needs to be done continuously is to raise awareness of the advances in treatment and that HIV is no longer a death sentence, and to also constantly raise awareness around stigma and discrimination.
This year’s World AIDS Day theme of #knowyourstatus is an increasingly personal message to each individual
Where can one get tested and who do you recommend it to?
Andrew: Fortunately, we are blessed to have a Ministry of Health Malaysia that is forward-thinking and open to innovative strategies and approaches on public health. Initially we had limited choices for HIV testing, where charges were out of budget for the lower income. Now, we have trained doctors and medical personnel, NGOs like Kuala Lumpur AIDS Support Services Society (KLASS) who have trained staff to engage with key communities to help them access testing services. A HIV test should be part of your regular health check. Knowing our status and being able to take care of ourselves while protecting our partner(s) is our responsibility.
Prof Dato’ Dr Adeeba: Testing can be done in all government and private clinics. Essentially everyone between the age of 18 and 64 should know their HIV status and have an HIV test at least once. It is especially important for those at higher risk.
An antibody test at 4 weeks will detect 95% of infections
Professor Dato’ Dr Adeeba
How does early detection of HIV improve lifestyle and condition of the afflicted?
Andrew: Early detection of HIV coupled with good access to effective treatment will do two things: For the individual, it will ensure the maintenance and improvement of their health, for the simple fact that if you stick to your follow-up at your treatment centre, the immune system will not be allowed to get to AIDS stage, that is unnecessary and can be avoided today.
HIV can pose problems on ageing, so suppressing the virus helps improve the quality of life and long-term wellbeing.
Prof Dato’ Dr Adeeba: If you test positive, you can start treatment immediately. Treatment with antiretroviral therapy will allow you to stay healthy for many years. HIV medicine also helps prevent transmission of the virus to others.