Japanese government officials are scratching their heads over a turn of events that has taken place since last summer’s Group of Eight summit in Okinawa, where Tokyo tried to make the fight against AIDS a major topic.

That turn of events? Now as the major industrialized nations prepare for this year’s summit, in Genoa, Italy, the spread of AIDS seems to have become a crucial issue.

U.S. President George W. Bush has given the best evidence of that so far, pledging $200 million to a U.N.-proposed trust fund for fighting AIDS during a White House meeting earlier this month with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.

The pledged U.S. aid is a start toward the $7 billion-to-$10 billion fund that the U.N. chief is hoping to secure from the international community. Japan and other G8 countries are expected to announce their pledges at the Genoa summit, which will open on July 20.

Host Italy has expressed an intention to put the fight against AIDS atop the agenda, and the fight is likely to have gained some momentum by then.

One month before the summit, the U.N. will convene a special General Assembly session on AIDS. The three-day conference will begin June 25 in New York.

Meanwhile, the numbers continue to swell. According to the U.N., the death toll from AIDS reached a record 3 million last year. In addition, it says there are 36 million people around the globe infected with the AIDS virus; nearly 70 percent of these live in sub-Saharan Africa.

The sudden interest in fighting the pandemic, however, has some government officials grumbling privately that the rest of the G8 did not come around earlier.

In Okinawa, Japan announced a decision to provide $3 billion worth of aid over five years to help developing countries fight AIDS and other infectious diseases. Although Japan urged the G8 countries to follow its lead, the call fell on deaf years.

“We feel as if we have been beaten at our own game in the G8 arena,” a senior Japanese government official said on condition he not be named.

For it’s part, Japan has yet to pitch in to the U.N. fund. During a Tokyo meeting with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Tuesday, Nigerian President Obasanjo asked Japan to provide financial contributions to it.

Koizumi replied that Japan is ready to make “appropriate” contributions, although he did not specify the amount.

“We will decide how much financial contributions to make to the proposed fund in time for the Genoa summit,” another senior Japanese government official said, requesting anonymity.

The G8 groups the U.S., Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Russia.

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