NOT many people would be crazy enough to want to walk across the Sahara desert. But Malaysian Jeff Lau, 26, has now done it twice.
It was all for a good cause. As a Red Ribbon youth icon, Lau is hoping to help Malaysian AIDS Foundation (MAF) to spread awareness about HIV education, treatment and advocacy to young people, who now make up a huge majority of new HIV cases.
According to the Malaysia HIV/AIDS report by the Ministry of Health, 75% of HIV infections in 2014 were among people aged 20-39. On average, around 10 new cases were reported every day that same year.
“It’s definitely a serious issue because the numbers are only based on reported cases. What about those that are unreported?” said Lau.
“There are still people who are shy to buy condoms due to the stigma, which is sad because through the report, we realised that sexual transmission is the main reason behind the increase in numbers.”
Of the roughly 3,500 cases, over 2,700 were infected through sexual transmission.
To raise funds for MAF’s outreach programmes, Lau signed up for the Marathon Des Sables, dubbed the toughest foot race on earth.
Earlier this month, he flew to Ouarzazate, Morocco for the six-day, 257km ultramarathon in blistering 45-degree heat.
Runners also have to be “self-sufficient” during the marathon, meaning they have to pack their own supplies to survive throughout the six days. All you get is a spot in a tent at the end of each stage.
Lau knew what he was getting himself into, having run at Marathon Des Sables 2014, but it was still a daunting prospect.
“We had to go through a lot of sand dunes which was difficult, because my feet kept sinking into the sand. The weather was quite bad too with sandstorms and strong winds,” he said.
“There were 1,108 participants and around 200 people dropped out due to dehydration, injuries like blisters, and diarrhea.
“I told myself that I had to keep going. I didn’t want to disappoint everyone because I had a responsibility to help others in need.”
But the race isn’t just about people challenging their physical and mental limits.
Many, like Lau, use it to raise funds, and the organisers have also set up a foundation to benefit local communities.
Many of those who have taken part in Marathon Des Sables have spoken about how the experience gave them a new perspective on life, and it was the same for Lau.
“I can’t compare my experience to those who are living with HIV because it’s probably just a fraction of what they go through, but I somehow feel like I know how they feel through this experience,” he said.
In 2014, he managed to raise around RM80,000 for MAF. He has already raised RM120,000 this year – well on his way to achieving his aim of doubling what he raised in 2014.
Soon, there’ll be a special contribution from local artist C.N. Liew, who will be creating an art piece based on Lau’s experience in the desert that will be sold to the public.
All the proceeds will be channelled to MAF’s educational campaigns to raise awareness about HIV in schools and universities, as well as to help women and children living with HIV.
MAF provides shelter homes for underprivileged people affected by HIV, including those who are abandoned by their families. They are given access to treatment, social reintegration programme as well as social and spiritual support.
They also ensure that the children don’t drop out of school, and the adults find employment before they leave the shelter homes.
It was only while he was completing his degree in communication design in Melbourne, Australia that Lau realised how afraid Malaysians were to talk about HIV and AIDS.
Not only were Australians more open to talking about it, they also had better support systems in place for those who were infected.
Through his involvement with MAF, Lau discovered that one of his friends had contracted HIV through sexual transmission. Thanks to proper treatment, which is available for free at all government hospitals and clinics, his friend’s condition is now under control.
“The HIV screening test is free at clinics and government hospitals. We want people to volunteer to get themselves tested for HIV.
“As cliche as it sounds, we’re the future of Malaysia. I don’t want people to mess up their own lives just because they’re not educated enough about safe sex,” said Lau.
“I want people, especially youth, to look at this issue and do something about it. HIV is preventable and treatable, but it’s sad that some people aren’t aware of that.”
According to Lau, more corporations are showing their support for HIV-related causes today.
With increasing support, Lau believes Malaysia is on the way towards meeting the goals of the global Ending AIDS by 2030 campaign.
The main thing holding us back, he said, is the lack of safe sex education. Nothing a few more youth icons like Lau can’t fix, right?
To contribute to the Malaysian AIDS Foundation, go to simplygiving.com/event/mds2016