KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 26 – Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s government has decided to submit all public health policies to religious considerations, amid controversy over a HIV prevention drug programme by the Health Ministry.
In a joint statement by the Ministry of Health (MOH) and the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs), both ministries said that Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa and Religious Affairs Minister Senator Mohd Na’im Mokhtar had a meeting yesterday to talk about health and religious “issues”.
The statement did not specify what issues were under discussion or if the discussion covered MOH’s planned two-year pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) programme that aims to provide, from this month, the HIV prevention pill for free to high-risk groups at selected public health clinics in states with high HIV prevalence.
“There have been a few health issues touching on religious sensitivities, causing bad perceptions to be spread in the community,” said the joint statement by MOH and the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs) yesterday that was not attributed to the ministers, but merely to the government ministries in general.
“The discussion also agreed that all health and religious issues need to be discussed holistically by taking into account scientific data and the opinion of religious leaders. This is important so that all decisions made provide pure benefits to the people across race and religion.”
The joint statement did not specify the outcome of the meeting on MOH’s PrEP programme, if indeed this was discussed.
Health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah; Health deputy director-general (public health) Dr Norhayati Rusli; MOH’s HIV, STI and Hepatitis C control sector head Dr Anita Suleiman; as well as Department of Islamic Development (Jakim) director-general Hakimah Mohd Yusoff and Prof Luqman Abdullah from the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs) attended the meeting.
The joint statement did not mention Luqman’s designation as Wilayah Persekutuan Mufti. Islamic issues are under the purview of State rulers, not the federal government.
Muslim religious conservatives, including among medical practitioners, have opposed MOH’s PrEP programme; their vitriolic attacks on the HIV programme recently increased after the media reported an answer in the Q&A section of the Selangor Mufti Department’s website that said Muslims are prohibited from providing PrEP to homosexual people.
Multiple infectious disease experts, including Dr Anita and Universiti Malaya’s Prof Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman, have come out on Twitter to defend MOH’s PrEP programme as part of efforts to prevent HIV infection and provide health care without discrimination. The HIV prevention medication is 99 per cent effective in preventing HIV infection from sex.
Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy chief executive Azrul Mohd Khalib described the Selangor Mufti Department’s advisory on PrEP as misinformed and misleading, saying that denying or providing selective access to the HIV prevention drug is “bad medicine, poor practice, and has no basis in public health”.
The Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) stressed that groups at the highest risk of HIV must be given access to the most effective preventive medication available, saying this would be in line with Malaysia’s commitment to universal health coverage.
The joint statement by MOH and the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs) on broadly subjecting “all” health issues or policies to religious purview could potentially put other health programmes at risk besides PrEP, particularly those relating to sexual and reproductive health.
Despite Dr Zaliha’s claims that she is committed to women’s and children’s issues, the health minister stayed silent on the Terengganu state legislative assembly’s move last month to amend the state’s Shariah law that makes out-of-wedlock pregnancy and childbirth illegal for unmarried Muslim women.