A New International Collaboration Tackles Rising HIV/AIDS Epidemic among Fishermen in Malaysia

August 24, 2009 @ 4:00 am

August 24, 2009

Dr. Nabila El-Bassel, Dr. Louisa Gilbert and Dr. Elwin Wu from the Social Intervention Group (SIG) at Columbia University School of Social Work have partnered with Dr. Adeeba Kamarulzaman and the Center of Excellence for Research in AIDS (CERIA) at the University of Malaya on a study to identify the forces that are fueling the HIV/AIDS epidemic among commercial fishermen from Malaysia and neighboring countries.

Transmission of HIV among commercial fishermen has become a concern in the region as a substantial proportion of reported HIV/AIDS cases in Malaysia has occurred among workers in the fishing industry.  Recent data estimates that the HIV prevalence rate among commercial fishermen in Malaysia is ten times higher than that among the country’s general population.  Commercial fishermen are considered a bridge population for the HIV epidemic in Malaysia and neighboring countries.  They are at risk of HIV/AIDS because of the availability of illicit drugs and the harsh working conditions they encounter in commercial fishing. These factors present unique challenges to prevention and treatment efforts. 

Project WAVES aims to examine social and structural determinants, such as drug use, social networks, migration and poverty that are contributing to the HIV epidemic among fishermen. Epidemiological studies have not been conducted to date among fishermen. Thus, research is imperative to understand the determinants of HIV transmission and other sexually transmitted diseases. Such research can provide the basis for the development of scientifically based prevention strategies and policies.  Project WAVES is being conducted in Kuantan, a commercial fishing port on the east coast of west Malaysia, 160 miles from the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. 

“The world has become one community, and epidemics like HIV/AIDS and other infections have no borders,” says Professor El-Bassel.  “This collaboration involving researchers from the University of Malaya and Columbia University to address a serious global health problem is consistent with Columbia’s mission to create partnerships and encourage cross-fertilization in scientific research, education, practice, and ultimately service delivery and the provision of life saving interventions.”

Project WAVES includes a qualitative study among commercial fishermen on boats and on shore.  This qualitative study will undergird an epidemiological study of 300 commercial fishermen in Kuantan to examine the determinants of risk behaviours for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.  Findings from this study will inform the design of future prevention strategies and policies that may advance harm reduction and treatment efforts among both the fishermen and migrant workers involved in commercial fishery, the latter from neighboring countries.