In a bid to encourage more people to undergo HIV tests, the health ministry is planning to offer testing as a free option during companies’ annual health checks.

The program will start on a trial basis in fiscal 2018 in big cities like Tokyo, where the rates for HIV and AIDS tend to be higher, a ministry official said Monday.

The free HIV test will be optional at the annual health checks companies carry out on employees, and the ministry will send the results directly to the patients instead of together with all of the usual health check data, the official said.

The health ministry has requested about ¥28 million from the fiscal 2018 budget for the HIV program.

“The important things are early detection and early treatment because the development (of AIDS) can be prevented by finding and treating the infection at an early stage,” the official said. “Detection can also prevent the spread of HIV.”

In Japan, public health centers offer HIV tests for free, but they are usually offered only on weekdays, when most people are working.

According to the official, the number of people tested for HIV at public clinics has dwindled in recent years, and the ministry is working to make the test more accessible.

“We hope the program will encourage more people to take the test,” the official said.

Japan saw a steady increase in new HIV infections through 2008. Since then, the number has hovered at around 1,000, according to ministry data.

In 2016, a total of 1,011 people became infected with HIV, according to the data. Of them, 735, or 73 percent, contracted the virus through homosexual intercourse and 170, or 17 percent, through heterosexual intercourse.

According to the data, 437 people developed AIDS in the same year, many of them in their 30s. Those in the 50-or-over age group accounted for around 30 percent of people with AIDS, the data showed.

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