Dr Zaiton Yahaya is Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award winner 2019 for outstanding work to end AIDS

Audrey Edwards
(From left) MAF president Prof Datuk Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman, MAF patron Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir and award winner Sabah AIDS Awareness Group Association founder and president Dr Zaiton Yahaya during the MAF-Berjaya Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award Gala Dinner at Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur December 14, 2019. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 14 — Dr Zaiton Yahaya, the founder and president of the Sabah AIDS Awareness Group Association (Saga) has been named winner of the Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award.

She was presented with a trophy, certificate of excellence, an Omega watch and cash prize of RM20,000 by Malaysian AIDS Foundation (MAF) patron Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir during the MAF-Berjaya Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award Gala Dinner tonight.

Saga, a non-profit organisation in Sandakan, is a Malaysian AIDS Council partner oganisation.

Dr Zaiton was one of the seven finalists shortlisted by a panel of seven judges comprising entrepreneurs and representatives from the corporate sector and government agencies.

Earlier, the patron’s awards were also presented to former Malaysian AIDS Council presidents Tan Sri Zaman Khan and Datuk Dr Raj Karim, and MAC Cosmetics.

Also present at the award presentation ceremony were Economics Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali, MAF chairman Prof Datuk Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman, Berjaya Corporation executive chairman Tan Sri Vincent Tan and Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur general manager Frank Stocek.

Dr Zaiton said that she was honoured to receive the award.

“When I started in 2008, there was a mother of three who just lost her husband and she said to me, ‘you are my only hope. Please do something for us’,” she said.

She also thanked Sandakan MP Vivian Wong and her late father the former MP of the constituency Datuk Steven Wong.

“This is just the beginning. We have to do more.”

In a press release, MAF said that the nominations were judged based on their dedication and impactful contributions in various fields of HIV work.

Dr Zaiton is a medical doctor by training and currently serves as the Sabah State Family Medicine Specialist (FMS).

Her involvement in AIDS activism came about after she became frustrated at not being able to do more to help her patients who had HIV-related vulnerabilities and socio-economic disparities that are fairly common among the low-income group in Sabah.

“She still recalls with sadness how she failed to save the life of a female patient, who was not only HIV positive, but also a victim of domestic violence and lived in extreme poverty,” said the MAF press release.

“It was the kind of encounter that emboldened her to establish Saga back in 2008.”

She also felt responsible to address the rising HIV infections among key populations and young people that she meets during her work at the Klinik Kesihatan Sandakan.

“Fondly known as ‘Kak Ton’ among her staff and outreach workers, Dr Zaiton is at ease with both colleagues from the medical fraternity and grassroots outreach workers that she considers as the heart and soul of her organisation.

“With her enigmatic and approachable personality, she is able to earn the trust of key populations in Sandakan — the transgenders, sex workers and men who have sex with men clients.

“They find comfort in Dr Zaiton, knowing that she will never undermine them and will always be there to take good care of them, providing service without prejudice, stigma and discrimination.” 

Saga has served 2,500 beneficiaries since it started in 2008 and Dr Zaiton’s latest venture under it is the Saga Health Access Programme (SHAPE).

The programme is designed to provide financial assistance to patients from rural Sandakan.

It gives immediate cash handouts to help HIV patients cover their transportation and lodging costs when they attend treatment.

SHAPE was started because Dr Zaiton realised that some of the patients were unable to stay on HIV treatment because patients from rural districts are forced to take long and expensive trips for medical review at major hospitals in town.

They cannot afford these trips as they are too poor and this in turn results in them defaulting on their treatment and eventually, die.

SHAPE, which is funded by donations, has covered patients with 21 types of chronic illnesses, including HIV.

Malay Mail is media partner for the event.

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