In Sabah, aid desperately needed to help patients with HIV, other chronic illnesses

Mark Ryan Raj
Vivian Wong (right) and SAGA manager Zarina Yahya speak to Amir. — Picture courtesy of The Malaysian AIDS Foundation

SANDAKAN, Sept 6 — Amir (not his real name) is, to this day, afraid.

Afraid that people around him will know that he is HIV positive.

This, is despite, his viral load of the virus is now “undetectable” (this means that there are so few copies of the virus in his blood, that he can now live a normal life and will not be able to transmit the virus to anyone else).

He will continue to do well as long as he takes his medication.

But in Sandakan, the stigma against HIV/AIDS is still so great that being HIV positive can normally mean that one will be rejected.

The common misconception about HIV is that it can be transmitted through touch, or even saliva.

In actual fact, it can only be transmitted through vaginal fluid, anal fluid, semen, breastmilk and blood.

The 57-year-old former security guard used to use drugs and is visually-impaired after his undiagnosed HIV infection spread to his eyes.

He told Malay Mail, which visited Sandakan during a recent field visit by the Malaysian AIDS Foundation (MAF), that it was his ignorant and carefree attitude that probably led him to being infected.

“In my 30s and 40s, I was extremely bad. I felt like the entire world was mine — it was in my hands," he said.

“I wasn’t careful, and I didn’t take very good care of myself either, so I hope people don’t do what I did.”

Also present on the field visit was Sandakan MP Vivian Wong, MAF executive director Jasmin Jalil and Sabah AIDS Awareness Group Association (SAGA) manager Zarina Yahya.

But Amir has not let his positive status get in the way of him living.

He is homeless but manages to get by and washes his own clothes and even takes care of his own personal needs as he often goes out to buy his own food and daily amenities.

This is despite the fact that he is almost completely blind.

Amir's reluctance of letting people know his status, said Wong was mainly because there was a false stigma behind HIV/AIDS in Sandakan and in most areas around Sabah.

"It is largely due due to poor awareness and education levels about the virus and disease," she said.

“Some of the women HIV patients that we met told me that even though their spouses knew they had HIV they still had unprotected sex, possibly because they don’t know the consequences of it."

“So, awareness and education for the people of Sandakan about HIV is very important."

Amir, in fact, didn’t even know what HIV was until he met Dr Zaiton Yahya, the founder of SAGA and the Sabah Health Access Programme (SHAPE).

Helping the poor

Wong (right) and Zarina looking through the pile of medication that 12-year-old nose cancer patient Cyle Addel takes. — Picture courtesy of The Malaysian AIDS Foundation

Under the SHAPE programme, 63 patients have received financial aid from the government for their treatment.

SAGA helps to bear the cost of their transportation fees, which range from RM12 to RM100, as some of them live more than 40 kilometres away from the clinic and Duchess of Kent Hospital.

But SHAPE doesn’t only help patients with HIV as they also assist other impoverished people and families, like 12-year-old nose cancer patient, Cyle Addel and a mother of 12 who has three children diagnosed with thalassemia.

“We hope to expand the SHAPE programme to other districts like Tawau, Lahad Datu, Kunak and Semporna, but it depends on the success of our gala dinner in Kota Kinabalu,” said Zarina.

To this end, the Red Ribbon KK Gala Dinner is a fundraising initiative by MAF and SAGA, as the organisations attempt to raise more money to help people outside of Sandakan as well.

Vivian Wong (centre) poses for a photo with members of the media, Sabah Aids Awareness Group Association (SAGA) and Malaysian AIDS Foundation (MAF) at her office in Sandakan. — Picture courtesy of Malaysian AIDS Foundation

Thankfully they have received plenty of support from government officials like Sabah’s Health and People’s Wellbeing Minister, Datuk Frankie Poong Ming Fung and Wong.

Wong was particularly keen on helping the patients and SAGA as much as she can to carry on, Datuk Wong Tien Fatt, her late father’s legacy in providing unparalleled support for these types of initiatives.

“Giving them money once to lessen their burdens is not enough, what about the next few months after that?”

“One of the mothers of the thalassemia patients said that all she wants is a boat, so she can earn a living catching fish, so, we don’t want to just give them money, but also, teach them how to earn a living for themselves too.”

The Red Ribbon Kota Kinabalu Gala Dinner is poised to be East Malaysia’s social event of the year where songstress Dayang Nurfaizah will serenade guests at the black-tie affair.

Tables are priced at RM25,000 (Diamond), RM10,000 (Platinum) and RM5,000 (Gold).

For enquiries, contact Hasrul at 013-9383871 or Pravin at 012-7837853.

All purchases are tax exempted.

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