In the 23 years since the HIV virus was discovered, AIDS has become recognized as a “disease of the poor,” one that is “incurable” but “100 percent preventable,” in the words of its co-discoverer, Professor Luc Montagnier, president of the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention. While over 40 million people in the world are currently infected with this deadly virus — more than half of them in Africa where nutrition is poor and education inadequate — the virus has not been brought under control in Japan, the world’s second-largest economy. In fact, HIV infections are on the increase, particularly among youths.

Seriously concerned by this trend, Japanese medical experts are urging the government to act quickly to raise public awareness, particularly among young people, and allocate more resources for its prevention. This is a serious problem and it is frightening, said a senior official at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) who asked to be unnamed.

Last year the total number of those infected with HIV in Japan hit a record 6,560 (of which 4,673 were Japanese nationals), following an unprecedented 1,165 (of which 698 were Japanese) new infections reported in 2004, the most recent data available. Compared with Africa, these numbers may seem insignificant, but what is worrying is that in the 20 years since the first infection was reported in this country, HIV has been spreading — and at an increasing rate.

Yet, public awareness, particularly among youth, remains low, with a majority of them even unaware that AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease. “Most young people in Japan see HIV as someone else’s business,” says Mr. Ryuhei Kawada, 30, who was infected by a contaminated blood product for hemophilia treatment at age 10. As the lecturer at Matsumoto University insists, education at school — or rather a lack of it — is to blame.

Indeed, a primary-school textbook describes HIV only as being transmittable “through blood and other means.” “This is a gross error in education, one that will cause confusion,” says the NIID official, who emphasizes: “You cannot separate AIDS education from sex education.”

The term “sexual intercourse” has reportedly been banned in classrooms through repeated directives issued by the education ministry. And yet, educational authorities appear blinded to the fact that, in today’s Japan, children grow up in an environment awash with distorted images of sex in manga, in magazines, on the Internet and on television, all of which make some young people overly interested in sex. HIV is a health and safety issue, and it is society’s responsibility to give young Japanese correct information on HIV/AIDS and teach them how to protect themselves.

In 2004, seven Japanese teenagers were infected with HIV, one of them in the “age 10 to 12” category, according to the health ministry. Nearly half of Japanese females infected that year were in their teens or 20s; one-third of male infections was in the same age bracket. These statistics show that whatever the education ministry is thinking, some Japanese youths are sexually active while remaining unaware of the risks.

Their rash behavior also suggests that there are much deeper problems, which often stem from insecurity and a lack of self-respect. Mr. Kawada, in his AIDS campaign aimed at young people, devotes time and energy on dealing with these fundamental problems by posing searching questions about life and death in an attempt to raise their self-esteem. Educators and parents can take an important cue from this approach, which helps young people realize that taking rational steps against infection is, after all, tantamount to protecting their own lives and maintaining their self-respect.

On a positive note, professor Montagnier maintains that a strong immunity resulting from a healthy lifestyle minimizes the HIV infection risk as the virus is not highly contagious, unlike other sexually transmitted diseases. This is why the poor — who often have low immunity resulting from under-nourishment — are the most vulnerable. The unhealthy eating habits of today’s youths could also put them at a greater risk.”

The NIID official’s view that education is “the most effective vaccine” should be shared by society. More resources should be allocated quickly for an effective public awareness campaign — one that will at least bring the problem out in the open and provide accurate information to the public.

Yet the role of parents and educators in nurturing respect in children both for themselves and for others will be decisive in fighting AIDS. Time is getting short as the deadly virus continues to spread across Asia.

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