Substance use and HIV are syndemic public health problems in Malaysia. Harm reduction efforts to reduce HIV transmission have primarily focused on men with substance use disorders.
To explore HIV risk behaviors, substance use, and social factors associated with poor health outcomes among women who use drugs in Malaysia.
A cross-sectional survey of 103 drug-using women in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia were recruited to assess their medical, psychiatric and social comorbidity as well as their engagement in nationally recommended HIV testing and monitoring activities.
One-third reported having ever injected drugs, with most (68.2%) having recently shared injection paraphernalia. Sex work (44.7%) and infrequent condom use (42.4%) were common as was underlying psychiatric illness and physical and sexual violence during childhood and adulthood. Most women (62.1%) had unstable living situations and suffered from an unmet need for social support and health services. HIV prevalence was high (20%) with only two thirds of women eligible for antiretroviral therapy having received it. Suboptimal HIV testing and/or monitoring was positively associated with interpersonal violence (AOR 2.73; 95% CI 1.04-7.14) and negatively associated with drug injection (AOR 0.28; 95% CI 0.10-0.77).
Women who use drugs in Malaysia demonstrate considerable medical, psychiatric and social co-morbidity, which negatively contributes to optimal and crucial engagement in HIV treatment-as-prevention strategies. Mental health and social support may be key targets for future public health interventions aimed at drug-using women in Malaysia.