The Malaysian government cannot openly advocate condom use to fight AIDS in this Muslim-majority country, and so must rely on voluntary groups to promote the method, an official said Monday.
The government "strongly believes" in the use of condoms to prevent the spread of the HIV virus, said Jalal Halil Khalil, the deputy director of the Health Ministry's AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases unit.
"But some people may misinterpret us to be promoting promiscuity. So we cannot be too open ... we have to take into account religious sensitivities," he told The Associated Press.
He said parades and other mass campaigns to highlight condom use or discuss sex, as seen in neighboring Thailand, remained taboo here.
Earlier this year, the health ministry had warned the number of HIV infections in Malaysia could surge by more than fourfold to 300,000 by 2015 as the virus spread rapidly from high-risk groups, such as drug addicts, to the general public.
On Sunday, the International AIDS Memorial Day, Jalal called on non-governmental organizations, such as the Malaysian AIDS Council, to take on the task of promoting condom use.
Malaysian AIDS Council president Adeeba Kamarulzaman told the AP although the group had been able to carry out education and awareness drives, it had been impossible so far to put on a big generalized campaign, using the mass media for example.
She also criticized so-called anti-vice laws, under which condoms are used as incriminating evidence to charge sex workers. In Thailand, a government-backed program to promote condom use among prostitutes was credited for controlling an AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
By February this year, 73,000 Malaysians had been infected with HIV, of which 75 percent were intravenous drug users and 7 percent women.
UNAIDS said last year Malaysia was among several Asia-Pacific countries that risked an HIV epidemic among drug users unless the government took the problem more seriously.
To fight HIV transmission, the government launched a five-year national plan in 2006, which includes providing drug substitution therapy and needle exchange programs for drug addicts, and free antiretroviral drugs at government clinics especially for women and children.
Three people die from AIDS-related illness every day in Malaysia, the Health Ministry has said. It warned last year the spread of AIDS could wipe out Malaysia's development made over the last 50 years and devastate the economy.