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Many public health centers in Japan are suspending HIV antibody tests, which had been available for free and under anonymity, as they are too busy dealing with the novel coronavirus pandemic.

According to the health ministry, the number of HIV tests conducted at facilities including public health centers in Japan fell 51.5% from the preceding year in 2020, to 68,998.

As a result, health centers that continue to offer HIV testing despite the COVID-19 crisis are being flooded with applications from people hoping to take such tests.

In response to concerns over delays in treatment for HIV carriers and a possible spread of HIV infections, the ministry is advising health centers to come up with alternative measures, such as outsourcing HIV testing.

In Saitama Prefecture, eight of its 17 public health centers suspended HIV testing through March.

The center in the city of Soka in the prefecture has halted its provision of HIV testing since September last year, with its testing area now being used for storage of equipment related to COVID-19. “We suspended HIV testing to prevent people coming here (for the test) from catching the novel coronavirus,” an official at the center said, adding that the center is considering if and when it will resume HIV testing.

At the health center in the city of Kawagoe, also in the prefecture, HIV tests are conducted about three times a month, with the number of people taking the test halved from the normal level of 30.

The center has been visited by a number of people from other prefectures who are unable to take HIV tests at health centers in their area, but the Kawagoe facility is sometimes unable to offer the test to such people quickly, according to officials.

Yoshiyuki Yokomaku, chief AIDS doctor at the Nagoya Medical Center in Nagoya, said that the number of HIV carriers starting to receive treatment at the center had decreased about 10% since the novel coronavirus began to spread in Japan, due partly to the suspension of HIV testing at local health centers.

There was a case in which HIV infection was confirmed in a patient with high fever who visited the center to check whether they had become infected with the novel coronavirus, according to Yokomaku. In another case, a person hospitalized with pneumonia developed symptoms of AIDS, he said.

Effective HIV drugs have been developed, allowing carriers of the virus to lead a normal life if they start receiving treatment early.

“I’m worried that reduced HIV testing opportunities will lead to a possible spread of infections and a delay in treatment,” Yokomaku said, adding that the situation “cannot be overlooked.”

The health ministry has called on public health centers across the country to outsource HIV testing and introduce an online appointment system for such tests.

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