The head of the U.N. effort to deal with HIV and AIDS praises Japan for its commitment to the global battle against the pandemic but says domestic organizations need more support in raising awareness here.

Michel Sidibe, executive director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), was in Japan last week to discuss the international and domestic situation surrounding HIV and AIDS with government officials and nongovernmental organizations.

Sidibe praised Japan’s international contribution, noting it was the fourth-largest donor to the Global Fund, an international financing institution to prevent and treat HIV, AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

“I was very impressed by the work which is done politically and at the global level to really maintain a kind of visibility on Japan’s commitment for poor people” with AIDS, Sidibe said.

“But at the same time, local effort must be taken to really support the (nongovernmental) organizations and networks, the people who are working with migrants, sex workers and men who have sex with men (MSM),” Sidibe said in an interview.

The most recent UNAIDS data show there were 33.4 million people in the world infected with HIV in 2008, of which an estimated 2.7 million were new cases. UNAIDS says new HIV infections were down 30 percent from the peak in 1996, when the figure reached 3.5 million.

In Japan, on the other hand, the rate of new HIV infections was on an almost steady increase until 2009, when it dropped for the first time in about a decade.

According to the health ministry, 368 Japanese were newly infected with HIV in 2000. The number had jumped to 1,033 by 2008, but the following year saw a decrease to 932.

“The data that we have are showing that the infection rate has been stabilized” here, Sidibe said. But “what is important is that we are seeing an increase of MSM, which is happening everywhere. In the U.S. and in different parts of the world, we are seeing an increase of infections among gay men.”

The health ministry data show that in 1999, 160 HIV cases in Japan were the result of heterosexual intercourse, while 195 came about through homosexual intercourse. Ten years later, the number of HIV patients through heterosexual intercourse was 180 while the number of people infected through gay sex rose to 659.

And out of the 9,184 people with HIV last year, 5,590, or 60.9 percent, were gays.

Sidibe, a Mali native who was making his first official trip to Japan since being elected the UNAIDS executive director in January 2009, met last Thursday with members of five NGOs supporting people with HIV and AIDS.

“It is those networks that can really reach the people most at risk,” Sidibe said. These NGOs “know the people, they have a good mapping of hot spot areas and their strategy to reach (people at risk of HIV or AIDS infections) is well established.”

Participants of the meeting stressed the difficulty in their activities due not only to discrimination stemming from HIV and AIDS but also the stigma against homosexuality.

Hiroshi Hasegawa, a representative of the Japanese Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (JaNP+), said many gays end up hiding their sexuality, making it even more difficult to spread awareness of HIV prevention.

“In Japan, gay people are stigmatized and probably 95 percent of the gay people are hidden away from society,” Hasegawa told Sidibe during the meeting. “This stigmatization is the biggest barrier for (HIV) prevention.”

Sidibe told the NGOs he was truly encouraged by their actions to support society’s most vulnerable and those most at risk of infection because of their minority status, such as the gay community and workers in the sex industry.

The NGOs “have been at the forefront of the HIV and AIDS epidemic — without (these NGOs) we would never have managed to break the conspiracy of silence,” Sidibe said.

HIV-positive patients in minority circles “have a different sexual orientation or they are exposed differently to different situations, but that doesn’t mean that we should not respect their dignity,” he said.

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