Counter regressive arguments against PrEP treatment with scientific evidence, says expert

Counter regressive arguments against PrEP treatment with scientific evidence, says expert
Professor Dato' Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman (left) speaking at a Q&A session held during her public lecture programme hosted by the Penang Institute think tank

GEORGE TOWN: Scientific evidence and data obtained from public health research projects should be utilised to counter regressive arguments that come from various parties on the dispensing of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) medications, says Professor Dato’ Dr. Adeeba Kamarulzaman.

PrEP is a type of prevention treatment designed for people who do not have HIV but are at risk of being infected, including those who have sexual partner(s) who are HIV positive, those who received a sexually transmitted infection (STI) diagnosis in the last six months, and those who use injected recreational drugs and have the habit of sharing needles with others.

PrEP treatment, despite its effectiveness in treating HIV, has been deemed controversial by conservative politicians from the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and Islamic religious bodies, who have made egregious claims in the past that a pilot programme carried out by the Health Ministry, where these drugs are dispensed to the public, risks “enabling the LGBT lifestyle in the country” due to its common usage among the said community.

Such claims, which lacked scientific evidence, have been disputed by public health experts and organisations.

Dr Adeeba of Monash University Malaysia, who specialises in infectious diseases (notably AIDS), said that she had encountered a similar argument when she led pilot projects by the Malaysian AIDS Council on three needles and syringe exchange project which began in 2005 that these projects are just going to encourage more people to use drugs.

When she worked on those pilot projects, she insisted that monitoring and evaluation be carried out so that the research team would be able to identify the number of needles and syringes that were given out and how many of them were returned.

It was targeted that 3,500 needles and syringes be given out to 350 people at each site throughout the pilot projects, according to her. However, the pilot project ended up distributing more than  7,000 syringes and needles to 500 people, which led to her being questioned by some members of the Steering committee that was overseeing the project on the increase rate.

“I said (to them), come with me to some of the ports and see how many people are in need of these services.

“There was so much need for (these clean syringes and needles). This was what happened. But there was this fear (from government) that people who use drugs where utilising this service would end up using government funds to sell these needles and syringes,” said Dr Adeeba at  public “Pandemics and Health Inequities - Looking Back and Moving Forward” lecture hosted by Penang Institute.

“(Therefore) it is really important to use science, evidence, especially with  these kind of “controversial” (research) projects to be able to respond (to these arguments) with numbers.”

In Malaysia, Truvada, the oral version of PrEP, is commonly used and can be obtained at selected government clinics or hospitals upon thorough health screening and prescription from physicians.

If one takes PrEP and is exposed to HIV via unsafe sexual encounters or needle use, it can keep the virus from establishing itself inside one’s body, as long as treatment is initiated before exposure.

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