KUALA LUMPUR: Dr Zaiton Yahaya was just another medical doctor serving as the Sabah state Family Medicine Specialist at Klinik Kesihatan Sandakan in 2008.

However, an encounter with an HIV patient sparked a change in Zaiton. The patient was a mother of three who had just lost her husband.

She recalled the mother telling her throughs teary eyes: “You are the only hope, please do something for us.”

That image and the frustration of not being able to do more to help her patients reeling from HIV-related vulnerabilities, is what spurred her to start the Sabah AIDS Awareness Group Association (Saga), a non-profit organisation based in Sandakan.

“I first went to see the Malaysian Aids Council and got the NGO registered before I started reaching out to people,” informed the award-winner who has even gone to the east coast of Sabah, to places like Tawau, Kunak and Lahad Datu, to reach out to people.

As Sandakan has the second highest number of HIV patients, the highest in Kota Kinabalu, Zaiton fought hard to secure sufficient funding from the Health Ministry and Global Funds, to carry out critical HIV prevention work for key populations and linking treatment to those who really needed them.

With her enigmatic and approachable personality, she has earned the trust of key populations in Sandakan – transgenders, sex workers and male-and-male sex partners. They find comfort in Zaiton as she would provide help like a true friend, without prejudice, stigma or discrimination.

For the first 10 years under her leadership, Saga served over 2,500 beneficiaries in some of the most hard-to-reach populations and challenging scenarios in Sabah. Her aim was to improve the health of key populations most affected by HIV/AIDS at the grassroots level.

“Most of our patients are naive and not sure about the disease. We had to make them understand the importance of treatment, ensure that they take their medication, and see that treatment can keep them alive,“ she said.

Seeing that abject poverty was the stumbling block, she introduced Saga Health Access Programme (SHAPE), offering financial assistance to patients in rural areas.

Zaiton raised RM50,000 within the first year of establishing SHAPE, enough to sustain 63 patients in five sub-districts from rural Sandakan attending treatment at the Duchess of Kent Hospital and Klinik Kesihatan Sandakan, which has to date seen marked improvements across the board.

The winner of the 2019 Malaysia AIDS Foundation-Berjaya Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award was presented a trophy, certificate of excellence and received a cash prize of RM20,000.

For Zaiton, the recognition of her work does not mean it is over; she’s just getting started and wants to develop SHAPE to run across Sabah and beyond.

“This award is for everyone who has worked hard for fighting HIV and there’s a lot of work to be done in Sabah, so this award is just the beginning, and there is more work to be done.”

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