Two-time Merdeka Award winner sends 'ripples of hope' in fight against HIV/AIDS


Prof Datuk Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman with her husband and their two sons. Photos: Prof Datuk Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman

Prof Datuk Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman, 57, strongly believes in achieving excellence in all she does, whether as an academician, the president of an NGO, or a medical doctor.


“Whether it’s in academia, the NGO that I helm, or clinical services, it’s always about excellence, it’s about doing the best that I can to make change and to do good,” she says.

Dr Adeeba also believes in nurturing the next generation of specialists in infectious diseases and researchers.

With such commitment to excellence, it’s no surprise that she has been awarded the Merdeka Award not once, but twice.

Prof Adeeba recently received the Merdeka Award 2022 for Health, Science and Technology as the driving force to mitigate the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS. And in 2008, she received the award as part of the Nipah Investigative team.

As an Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM) fellow who specialises in HIV/AIDS, Dr Adeeba has made an impact on the prevention, treatment and research of infectious diseases and HIV/AIDS for over 30 years.

She is currently a Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases under the University of Malaya’s Faculty of Medicine, where she founded the Infectious Diseases Unit – one of the country’s leading infectious diseases and HIV/AIDS tertiary referral centres – in 1996, and Centre of Excellence for Research in AIDS (CERiA) – which runs research activities focusing on marginalised communities such as drug addicts, prisoners and homosexuals in Malaysia – in 2008.

Dr Adeeba (first from left) at Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award Gala Dinner 2019.Dr Adeeba (first from left) at Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award Gala Dinner 2019.

Dr Adeeba serves as the chairman of the Malaysian AIDS Foundation, where she raises funds for HIV prevention, treatment, and care programmes to tackle the problem of HIV/AIDS in Malaysia.

She has had an instrumental role in initiating the Malaysian government’s shift in drug policies, which saw the introduction of harm reduction programmes to prevent HIV infection among drug users.

“There was an epidemic of HIV among drug users in the late 90s and early 2000s, and there wasn’t any effective intervention, so together with colleagues at Malaysian AIDS Council and others, we started knocking on doors and speaking to those at the highest level.

“We were given the green light to implement the Needle Syringe Exchange and Harm Reduction Programmes, and for the Health Ministry to prescribe/treat drug users with methadone, which resulted in a huge reduction in the number of HIV infections from injected drug use,” she says.

In roughly seven years, they managed to prevent about 14,000 new infections.

Prof Adeeba and Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin who officiated Red Ribbon Gala and Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award 2021.Prof Adeeba and Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin who officiated Red Ribbon Gala and Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award 2021.

During the pandemic in Malaysia, Dr Adeeba also led the response against Covid-19. She chaired the UMMC Covid-19 Task Force and was part of the Selangor Covid-19 Task Force and Johor Covid-19 Health Advisory Committee. ​

She has received other awards, including the Australian-Asian Fellowship Award in 2001, Tun Mahathir Award and the inaugural Advance Australia Global Award in the Category of Alumni in 2012.

She was named as one of the Top 20 most influential female scientists in the Muslim World.

In 2013, she co-chaired the 7th IAS Conference on Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention held in Kuala Lumpur.

Dr Adeeba also chaired the 24th International AIDS Conference in Montreal this year (Jul 29 - Aug 2).

Down to earth

(from left) Dr Adeeba with past president Prof Anton Pozniak from UK, and incoming president Prof Sharon Lewin from Australia, at 24th International AIDS Conference held in Montreal from 29 to Aug 2.(from left) Dr Adeeba with past president Prof Anton Pozniak from UK, and incoming president Prof Sharon Lewin from Australia, at 24th International AIDS Conference held in Montreal from 29 to Aug 2.Despite all her accomplishments, Dr Adeeba, who started off working as a clinician in Australia and returned to Malaysia as a specialist in infectious diseases (a new field in the country) – remains down-to-earth and humble.

“What I like most about being a doctor is being with my patients. Seeing the ill brought back to good health is gratifying,” says Dr Adeeba, but admits having less time for this now due to her other commitments.

Dr Adeeba emphases that she has never faced any discrimination as a female doctor.

“The challenge I did face as a woman was trying to start a family at the same time I was beginning a career,” she reveals.

“I overcame that by delaying having children. Coming back to Malaysia to give birth and raising them here with extended family support and live-in help is a luxury I wouldn’t have been able to afford in Australia,” she says.

She believes that medicine shouldn’t be a gendered thing.

“I neither encourage nor discourage girls and boys to pursue medicine because it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. The study duration is long, the early years of training once you graduate are gruelling.

“But the rewards are enormous so I do encourage those with an interest in it to find out more before you take the plunge because you need the commitment to see it through,” she advises.

“And, never ever take it up just because your parents forced you to.”

Having said that, she admits having more women would be more advantageous in certain areas of medicine, namely obstetrics and gynaecology (O&GC).

“Patients, especially in Malaysia, generally prefer to see a female O&GC. But other than that, there’s no reason for medicine to be gendered.

“You might think orthopaedics is something that’s not for women, but some of the best orthopaedicians at UMMC are women,” she says.

Prof Adeeba at the 7th IAS Conference on HIV Pathogenesis Treatment and Prevention in Kuala Lumpur.Prof Adeeba at the 7th IAS Conference on HIV Pathogenesis Treatment and Prevention in Kuala Lumpur.

Unity in diversity

Dr Adeeba feels that in order for a country to progress, there must be unity and equality.

“There should be unity in diversity and a coming together of the races, especially in the medical profession,” she says.

“Our patients are people from all walks of life, with different backgrounds and beliefs, and it’s essential that the people taking care of them also reflect this mix,” she says.

“Entry to medical school should be based on merit, because quality matters. Similarly, hiring of academic and clinical staff should also be on merit,” she adds.

“After all, you want the best to look after you when you’re ill, don’t you?” she asks rhetorically.

Dr Adeeba is an optimist at heart.

“The projects I’ve picked have always been tough but what gives me optimism is when I look at the young ones – those in their 20s who are more exposed and have ready access to information – and I see the hope in them and a brighter future.”

Prof Adeeba was involved in the ROSE (Removing Obstacles to Cervical Screening) programme.Prof Adeeba was involved in the ROSE (Removing Obstacles to Cervical Screening) programme.

A famous quote that she believes in is the “ripple of hope”, one that Robert Kennedy said at the University of Cape Town in 1966.

“It’s important that we try and do good. That’s my principle in life – to make small changes that will send ripples through towards bigger changes – because even though we might not see the rewards immediately or personally, it happens to the people around us and every little bit counts,” she concludes.

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