SciMy Interview: Professor Dr. Adeeba Kamarulzaman

Interviewed by Dr. Wong Kah Keng and Dr. Lee Hooi Ling

Prof. Dr. Adeeba Kamarulzaman (FRACP, MBBS) is the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases at the University of Malaya (UM), Kuala Lumpur. She was trained in Infectious Diseases in Melbourne, Australia in the 1980s and has since dedicated her career in the field, particularly in HIV/AIDS. Upon returning home, Prof. Adeeba helped to establish the pivotal Infectious Diseases Units, one of the leading referral centres for infectious diseases and HIV/AIDS in the country, and the Centre of Excellence for Research in AIDS (CERiA) at UM. As one of the leading Malaysian figures in the field of HIV/ AIDS, Prof. Adeeba is also the Chairman of the Malaysian AIDS Foundation and a Co-Chair of the WHO Technical and Strategic Advisory Committee on HIV. In this interview, Prof. Adeeba shares with us her experiences in advocating the progress of HIV/AIDS in Malaysia in terms of its treatment, prevention and research, as well as the community response towards the disease.

Q1. Prof. Adeeba, could you please let us know of your educational background and what led you to HIV/AIDS research?

I graduated in Medicine from Monash University, following which I was trained as an Internal Medicine and Infectious Diseases Specialist in Melbourne at various hospitals including the Monash Medical Centre and the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital. I became interested in HIV/AIDS research because it formed a substantial component of my clinical work when I returned to Malaysia to practice as an Infectious Diseases Specialist. Plus, there was hardly any research being conducted in any discipline related to HIV, be it clinical research, epidemiology or laboratory-based research. Thirdly, there were many novel scientific discoveries going on in the HIV world in terms of treatment or prevention that it was, and still is, really exciting to be a part of that.

Q2. How do you juggle your daily activities as you are holding several roles in both local and international organisations?

It is challenging – over the last three years since becoming the Dean, my focus has been on improving and strengthening our Medical Education programmes by completely revising the MBBS curriculum and introducing this new curriculum two years ago. We have also taken on a massive task to transform the postgraduate medical specialist training program. This is an inter-varsity and Ministry of Health effort led by us here at UM. We are also reviewing and revising the curriculum for other programmes e.g., pharmacy, biomedical science, nursing and imaging. My clinical work has taken a bit of a back seat as a result of my taking on the Deanship; I am not doing as much clinical work as I would like to and it is quite unfortunate as that remains my first love, so to speak. However, I still do weekly rounds and contribute to the weekend ward round rosters.

As the Dean, I try to delegate responsibilities as best I could. Fortunately we have many experienced and excellent academics, clinical and research staff to allow me to delegate down. I try and encourage especially the mid-level and more junior members to take on leading roles in various projects and activities to bring the Faculty to the next level in terms of teaching and research.

Prof. Adeeba receiving the Force for Good award at Tatler Ball 2014 and dedicated the award to the ‘faceless and nameless’ figures of NGOs.
Prof. Adeeba receiving the Force for Good award at Tatler Ball 2014 and dedicated the award to the ‘faceless and nameless’ figures of NGOs.

Q3.Please tell us more about HIV research (CERiA) at UM?

CERiA’s research activities include lab-based research focusing on molecular epidemiology of HIV and the immunopathogenesis of HIV particularly related to antiretroviral treatment. We also focus on HIV co-infections especially tuberculosis (TB) and human papillomavirus (HPV). On the epidemiology and social science front, we focus on HIV infection among the marginalised populations namely people who use drugs, prisoners, men who have sex with men (MSM) and sex workers.

As much as possible we try and do research that are relevant and impactful and focus on those that are most vul nerable. We have established a clinic in Kajang Prison thatnot only provide services to the HIV infected prisoners there but has also allowed us to do research around incarcerated settings that will hopefully influence policies, such as improvement in access to healthcare for prisoners. We have also established a community-based clinic to provide services for people who inject drugs who have HIV or are at risk of it. Built into this are research projects looking at molecular epidemiology, clinical research as well as a myriad of other projects. Clinical research involving patients who attend UMMC are also an important area for research – focusing on antiretroviral treatment and related issues.

We are very fortunate to have established very strong collaborations and partnerships with renowned HIV researchers from Yale, Columbia, Monash and Melbourne universities and the Universities of New South Wales and Western Australia. In addition to joint research programmes these partnerships have allowed for joint PhD trainings, international grant applications and of course publications in high impact journals.

Prof. Adeeba and the team members of Centre of Excellence for Research in AIDS (CERiA) at University of Malaya.
Prof. Adeeba and the team members of Centre of Excellence for Research in AIDS (CERiA) at University of Malaya.

Q4. Which aspect of biomedical research that you think its funding should be increased?

First of all, all areas of research in this country could do with further boost in funding. Research is an expensive business that should not just be measured by direct research output in terms of publications. Secondly the immediate impact of any research output whether it is in fundamental or applied research may not be obvious immediately and is often cumulative.

I would encourage the government to increase funding for community-based research, meaning research that directly impacts the lives of patients or the community that comes in contact with them. For instance, one of our team’s researches has dealt with assessing the proportion of HIV-infected prisoners in our country’s largest prison, Kajang Prison, with undiagnosed tuberculosis (TB) infection. We found that a significant proportion of these patients had undiagnosed TB [1] and uncovering this, for me, is crucial so that these unfortunate prisoners could receive proper treatments, not only to save their lives but to also stop the spread of this airborne, deadly disease within the prison and to the public when they are released.

Unfortunately, prisoners and people who use drugs are some of the most overlooked and neglected groups of people, and little does the society realise the importance of giving them a helping hand in one of the most basic facets of life, that is, access to proper healthcare. We need to increase TB screening and treatment programmes at substance abuse treatment centres and prisons to save their lives and to curb the spread of the disease.

Q5. What do you think are some of the strategies to improve local research arena?

High quality research stems from good quality education High quality research stems from good quality education – my primary focus has always been to strengthen our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, be it medicine, pharmacy or biomedical sciences. If we focus on producing outstanding doctors, specialists and scientists, good quality research will naturally start to knock on our doors.

Secondly, we need to build proper infrastructure for research and by this I don’t mean just machines and toys. Good research requires a whole team to support it – from database managers to administrative staff for example.

Unfortunately, in universities these positions are not provided for and are often contractual with relatively low pay. This does not encourage good people to stay. Thirdly, we have not adequately addressed the research career pathway. We do spend a lot of money sending people away to do PhDs etc. but we don’t seem to have adequately planned for what to do with them when they return.

Finally, we need to encourage universities and research institutes to develop niche and focus areas that will help answer humanities’ most pressing problems and from there develop strategic partnerships with counterparts from around the world in these areas. The research world now can no longer operate in isolation. The more you collaborate the more successful you will be.

Q6. What are some of the the biggest problems faced by HIV-infected individuals?

The discrimination or stigmatisation by the general public against HIV-infected individuals is the biggest problem. Due to stigma and discrimination, they are terrified to come forward to take the test and to access proper treatment. The first step is to get tested for their HIV status, but many do not come forward for that due to perceived shame and fear of backlash by their own families and communities. Also, a significant number of patients who are aware of themselves being HIV-positive do not come forward for treatment.

The situation is made worse by laws and policies that affect people who use drugs in many adverse ways as they are often placed at detention centres without strong basis for them to be detained. It exposes them to infection and further risks, and it takes away their access to treatment because at detention centres or prisons there is generally no access to treatment.

Receiving an UM Excellence Award in 2012.
Receiving an UM Excellence Award in 2012.

Q7. What are the possible ways to improve HIV/AIDS prevention and treatments in Malaysia?

We need to utilise the media a lot more effectively to increase and create awareness on HIV/AIDS issues. More efforts are needed to normalise HIV and make people aware that modern antiretroviral therapy has rendered HIV/AIDS manageable as a chronic disease. It is no longer, and far from being, a death sentence. People who engage in high-risk behaviours such as unprotected casual intercourse should get tested frequently and get access to treatment without delays when the status is known to be positive. The general public should stop condemning HIV-positive patients or buying into HIV transmission myths e.g., casual contact such as holding hands, being near someone who is HIV-positive does not transmit HIV. Care and acceptance heal, not unjust hatred and discrimination.

Research has shown that we need to start treatment on everyone who is infected with HIV asap – not only for their individual health benefits but also to prevent onward transmission and therefore as a public health measure. We therefore need to create the right environment for people to come forward to be tested, treated and retained in care.

In addition, scientific progress for HIV/ AIDS research seems to have taken a back seat in some instances in our country. For example, in a research study supported by the World Bank, our group has shown that the Needle Syringe Exchange Programme (NSEP) and methadone maintenance treatment programme have successfully averted over 14,000 new HIV infections and saved the government RM40 million ringgit in healthcare costs. However, there has been no initiative to either strengthen or scale up these programmes and funding for NSEP seems to be contracting.

Q8. What is your advice to researchers particularly female scientists?

First and foremost, choose a field that you are passionate about. Research and science can be very challenging so you need to work in an area that you truly enjoy doing. Collaboration is the main key to success. Always reach out to researchers in your field regardless from near or far. Female scientists should be active in building support networks with other scientists and don’t be shy to reach out to others.

Q9. Finally, what are the highlight events in your career?

In Vienna presented by Liza Minnelli (left) with the Life Ball Crystal of Hope for TREAT Asia in 2005.
In Vienna presented by Liza Minnelli (left) with the Life Ball Crystal of Hope for TREAT Asia in 2005.

The first was when I received an award in Vienna in 2005 on behalf of the research network we belong to, TREAT Asia, from Liza Minnelli in front of 40,000 people on a huge red ribbon stage outside the Vienna Town Hall. During the event I was sitting in between Liza Minelli and Heidi Klum and next to her was Seal! Secondly, it was giving a plenary lecture at CROI (Conference on Retrovirus and Infection) in Boston in 2014. Scientifically speaking, this event would be considered the pinnacle of one’s career in HIV research. Finally, hosting the 7th International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Prevention and Treatment in KL in 2013 with Co-Chair Professor Francoise Barre Sinoussi was a major highlight; the conference attracted 5,000 scientists and was the first to be held in Asia.

This article first appeared in the Scientific Malaysian Magazine Issue 11. Check out other articles in Issue 11 by downloading the PDF version for free here: Scientific Malaysian Magazine Issue 11 (PDF version)


[1] Al-Darraji et al. PLoS One. 2013 Sep 9;8(9):e73717

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