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Last month the health ministry reported that the number of new HIV cases and AIDS diagnoses in Japan hit a high of 1,545 in 2008. According to the health ministry, 1,113 people were found to be infected with the HIV virus that can lead to AIDS, and 432 others were diagnosed with AIDS. This is the sixth consecutive year that a record number of new HIV cases has been reported, and the third straight year that a record number of AIDS diagnoses has been made.

Of the new HIV/AIDS cases, 964 people were infected through homosexual sex; 365 through heterosexual sex; and 10 by shared syringes. People in their 30s composed the largest number of new HIV/AIDS cases at 559, or 36 percent, followed by those in their 20s (377) and 50s (283). Males made up 1,442 of the cases.

Although Japan still has one of the world’s lowest ratios of reported HIV cases, this is no reason for people to lower their guard. Sexual activity is responsible for the vast majority of HIV transmissions. Because only a tiny fraction of the nation’s sexually active population undergoes HIV testing, the true number of HIV infections is likely to be far higher than the reported figure. In 2007, for example, the number of blood donations that tested positive for HIV reached a record high of 2.06 per 100,000.

Although treatments exist that can suppress HIV, there is no vaccine or cure. Prevention remains the only fully effective defense against the deadly virus. One doesn’t have to “sleep around” to contract HIV; just a single exposure to the virus can result in infection. And because symptoms can take years to appear, many infected people are unaware they are carrying the virus. To protect oneself against HIV infection, people should refrain from engaging in unprotected sex unless they are in a monogamous relationship and have tested negative for HIV.

In addition to the many private health clinics that offer rapid HIV tests, most public health centers either offer free, anonymous HIV testing or can make referrals to locations that do. When it comes to HIV, ignorance is certainly not bliss.

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