Alarmed by a rapid surge in people infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, health officials and experts say warnings about the importance of prevention are no longer being heard.
A health ministry commission monitoring HIV developments has recently unveiled that 184 people were found to be infected with the virus between July and September, registering the highest number on record in terms of a monthly average.
During the three-month period covered by the latest report, 100 new AIDS cases were confirmed and eight people were confirmed to have died, bringing the total number of AIDS deaths in Japan to 1,278 since the disease first surfaced in 1985.
“It is time for Japan to acknowledge that its current efforts to curb the spread of HIV have been a complete failure,” said Tatsuo Hasegawa, head of the Tokyo-based nonprofit organization Japan Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS. The group promotes public education campaigns about HIV.
“While AIDS has apparently become a disease of the past in the minds of Japanese, the virus remains a great threat to society,” he said. Hasegawa, a 50-year-old former chief editor of a gay magazine, became infected with HIV in 1992.
While Japan is slated to host the Seventh International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific beginning Nov. 27 in Kobe, experts say the level of concern about the danger of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases is low.
“Not just HIV, but other sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise, as are unwanted pregnancies, especially involving younger people,” said Yoshiki Sakurai, medical adviser at the Japanese Foundation for AIDS Prevention.
“The primary problem is that people increasingly avoid using condoms, which has been the easiest and most effective tool to avoid such diseases,” he said.
Medical experts believe there are around 10,000 HIV carriers in Japan and that the number will increase to between 30,000 and 50,000 by 2010.
One body of research shows that in Japan, those who have many sexual partners tend to use condoms less than those who have fewer partners. This is opposite the tendency in other industrialized countries, and possibly suggests Japanese as a whole are less careful about STDs.
Sakurai of the semipublic foundation for AIDS prevention attributes the proliferation of unsafe sex to pornographic videos and other sexual entertainment that have promoted such behavior.
Japan used to boast a relatively high rate of condom use compared with other industrialized countries, partly because birth control pills were not authorized here until two years ago, Sakurai said.
The latest health ministry commission report also reveals that homosexual contact was a more common infection route for HIV than heterosexual contact.
According to the report, more than 80 percent of people in Japan with HIV or AIDS are men. Among the 165 males recorded with HIV, 92 were infected through homosexual contact.
“The gay community was hit hardest by the initial diffusion of HIV in the late 1980s, and it has been the most conscious of the danger of AIDS,” Sakurai said.
The Japanese public as a whole, however, has become dangerously complacent, he warned.
“The situation shows that there is something wrong with Japan’s sex culture.”
Sex is still viewed here as something to hide, and people are generally hesitant to discuss it at home or in school, even to disperse correct information about HIV or safe sex, he said.
Another factor that impedes HIV prevention is a prevailing tendency among the public to draw a line between people with HIV and others and to blame the former for risking their lives by having unsafe sex, Hasegawa said.
“Nobody wants to think of it as their own problem, but as that of others who are thoughtless enough to have unsafe sex,” he said.
“But AIDS is not a disease limited to gays or reckless young people. It is a threat against this society, and anyone who has a typical sex life here has the potential to be infected.”
Hasegawa is among the few who have been willing to openly campaign against HIV using their real names — many fear the social stigma attached to HIV carriers.
In past years, Hasegawa gave lectures at schools and other venues about his experience fighting the virus.
“Through the development of medicines, the virus became something we can live with, and people’s sense of danger is diminishing,” Hasegawa said.
“But taking all of these various medicines properly poses a huge inconvenience to my daily life, while greatly limiting my life opportunities,” he said, adding that the social cost of treating people with HIV should not be overlooked.
Medical experts estimate that the cost of life-term medical care for an HIV carrier is between 50 million yen and 70 million yen.
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