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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 June, 2005, 10:18 GMT 11:18 UK
Malaysia HIV measures under fire
By Jonathan Kent
BBC News, Kuala Lumpur

Muslims at prayer in a Kuala Lumpur mosque
Muslim leaders have criticised the minister's plans
Malaysia's Health Minister Chua Soi Lek has asked religious leaders to drop their opposition to moves to contain the spread of HIV.

Mr Chua was reacting to a World Health Organization warning that the country was on the verge of an HIV epidemic.

Senior Muslim clerics have criticised plans to distribute free condoms, saying it would encourage promiscuity.

The WHO sounded the alarm after studying health ministry data on HIV infection in Malaysia.

The WHO said the virus was in danger of spreading out of control, especially among intravenous drug users.

More than three quarters of the 65,000 cases of HIV infection reported in Malaysia since 1996 have been attributed to the sharing of needles.

But the proportion of cases thought to be due to sexual transmission has also more than doubled in the same period.

Mr Chua has advocated a pragmatic approach, giving out free needles and condoms to reduce the spread of HIV.

It is a brave stand in a country whose many religious groups are united primarily by their conservatism.

Mr Chua will try to win his opponents round when he meets ulamas - Muslim religious teachers - next week.

The senior Muslim cleric in the state of Perak has already decried the plan to hand out free condoms, saying it would lead to more illicit sex.

Political leaders in two other states have said drug addicts, or those who are HIV positive, should only be given condoms if they are married.

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