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JAPAN: HIV Cases Rise as Awareness Wanes

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Jun 15 2011 (IPS) - Slackening awareness and deep-rooted social discrimination are behind the latest figures that show Japan with a record number of HIV-positive and AIDS patients, officials and experts say.

Yorimasa Nagai, director of the Japan Foundation for AIDS Prevention, said the climbing figures are a wake-up call for the government, which has announced it is slashing budgets for organisations working on the issue.

Last month, the Health and Welfare Ministry reported 1,075 new HIV-positive cases for 2010, an increase of 54 from 2009. The number of new patients with full-blown AIDS also rose to an unprecedented 469, with the highest numbers recorded among homosexuals.

The upward trend in HIV-positive and AIDS cases has been observed for the past two years, but a leading grouse from grassroots workers is the apparent official reluctance to include analysis and forecasts in the annual release of HIV and AIDS statistics.

“Japan, a rich country, is simply not prepared to deal with protecting the public from contracting the HIV virus. The problem is a tendency to view the issue as a foreign one, leading to the denial of an effective national solution,” said counsellor Abbey Freu at the AIDS Network Yokohama, a grassroots AIDS prevention group.

“Japanese authorities release statistics based on tests, a system that creates a false sense of security because the figures are small. The result is less public awareness, that has pushed HIV and AIDS to remain an underground issue,” Freu added.

“HIV and AIDS are discovered in Japan only during testing or after people fall seriously ill. There could be much higher rates in the country which we will not find out as the lack of awareness has reduced testing rates as well,” Nagai explained.

Voluntary testing in Japan, despite being free, dropped to 130,000 in 2010, from 150,000 in 2009. Experts reveal that the use of condoms has also plunged steadily to 200 million annually, less than a third of the high of 700 million a decade ago. Medical experts say this has contributed to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV.

Nagai, representing Japan’s leading official body dealing with HIV/AIDS, blames government negligence. “It’s a vicious cycle,” he pointed out. “With low infection rates, the media prefer to focus on other infectious diseases such as influenza which poses a risk to the general population. AIDS is being increasingly left on the side burner,” he said.

Dr Tsuneo Akaeda, a gynaecologist and leading crusader in the prevention of STDs and HIV among youth, agrees with Nagai, but insists much more can be done to combat the problem at the non- governmental level.

“AIDS awareness is a key prevention strategy and this can be done successfully, starting with peer counselling in schools led by teachers and parents. There is also a need to put stronger pressure against irresponsible depiction in magazines and videos that fail to show the dangers of unprotected sex,” he said.

Akaeda, who counsels the youth, among them teenagers seeking his medical services for abortion and STDs, said they are vulnerable because they have no one to turn to for advice on sexual issues.

“Sex is a taboo subject in Japanese society. Parents and teachers refuse to accept the growing trend among students who can be as young as 12 years old and sexually active. Naturally, HIV testing is something people dread in this kind of society because it will lead to social ostracism,” he said.

In a bid to cope with the social constraints, Freu says his organisation links its HIV awareness campaigns to talking about students defending themselves from sexual molesters and predators, which is more acceptable.

Freu and his group are also calling for awareness campaigns that move away from using popular stars as symbols which, he says, has led to a “festival” mode of thinking rather than sustainable prevention projects.

“For example, Japanese anti-HIV campaigns promote T-shirts with English phrases about AIDS, creating the impression of a problem that is not local but rather foreign,” he explains. “This is not effective. HIV and AIDS must be viewed as a home grown issue that affects local communities and can be solved by local communities.” (ENDS/IPS/AP HE MD SD SX/SK/LR-SW/11)

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