Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Population

HEALTH-JAPAN: HIV Breeds on Complacent Attitudes Among Youth

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Nov 30 2005 (IPS) - Eri Iwase, 19, a pretty first year university student, says she is not worried about being infected with HIV virus that causes Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), even though she is sexually active.

”I just feel AIDS is a disease that has nothing to do with me,” she said, explaining that her studies, part-time work, hobbies and meeting her boyfriend, keeps her too busy to learn more about the virus that is believed raging across Japan.

Such a complacent attitude, among sexually active young people, represents the uphill struggle that Japan faces in trying to control AIDS in a country where not only the population but also the government, continues to ignore the danger of the virus spreading.

Japan has over 10,000 officially known cases of AIDS/HIV, low compared to other industrialised nations but troubling because new infections reached a record, 1,165 in 2004 – making it the only G7 country in which new infections have been increasing since 1993.

Moreover, government statistics indicate about 40 percent of the new figures represent people in their teens or twenties -a 24 percent rise from 2003. Condom use has also decreased 20 percent in 2005, say doctors.

”Despite various programmes, we are finding it really hard to penetrate the younger generation and already the statistics show nearly half of 17- year-olds have experienced sex,” says Hideko Fujimori, who heads Action Against AIDS, a small grass-root organization involved in promoting protection against AIDS.

Fujimori attributes this situation to various problems. He cited as key issues poor sex education programmes in schools, the lack of frank discussion of sex, especially between parents and children, and low financial support from the government.

“When I visit schools to talk about HIV/AIDS, there is a renewed interest among the students but that dies down a week later. New measures to make it “cool” to talk about AIDS protection is the best way to empower children to help themselves,” he said.

Fujimori is planning to launch a new project next April where high-school students will be trained to develop programmes geared to raise awareness.

Takuya Togawa, director of the AIDS program at the Health and Welfare Ministry, acknowledges the lack of progress in combating HIV in Japan.

”There are barriers in our current projects aimed at reaching youth. We are requesting a larger budget from 2006 to strengthen AIDS awareness projects that will, from now on, involve more activists rather than rely too heavily on doctors and health centres manned by local municipalities,” he said.

Japan’s AIDS/HIV budget is around 80 million US dollars per year. Activists say a large part of the funds is spent on research and treatment, leaving insufficient money to finance protection programmes that are geared specially to youth.

For instance, HIV testing centers manned by municipalities also cover various other diseases and are based on appointments restricted to once or twice a week. Activists say that despite testing being conducted on an anonymous basis, the formal atmosphere turns young people away.

Dr Masaki Kihara, a well-known AIDS expert, has developed sex education classes that incorporate social issues affecting children such as lack of peer support, problems with parents, and the importance of being able to develop close and equal intimate relationships with the opposite gender.

”My research has shown that freewheeling sexual habits among youth usually stems from their poor personal relationships. By being able to talk about these social issues in class, we aim to help children develop self-confidence that will protect them from risky sexual behaviour,”

Kihara’s methods have found support among teachers and parents who oppose explicit education in schools such as condom usage, a major problem for advocates who see the gap between attitude towards sex between he older and younger generation in Japan as working towards the AIDS crisis in Japan.

Kihara also hopes to tackle the lucrative sex industry in Japan that employees young women, some in high school, which he says is linked to the Japanese AIDS problem.

Police reports this year indicate that the sex-delivery business-where customers are offered services over their mobile phones-has now reached more than 2,700 businesses employing around 500,000 people each.

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