Thirty years have now passed since HIV/AIDS began making headlines, and the deadly pandemic continues to reap a grim toll. What began as a mysterious illness afflicting the U.S. gay community in the summer of 1981 eventually snowballed into a pandemic that has infected more than 60 million people and killed nearly half that number. Despite years of efforts to combat the disease, even now more than 7,000 people are infected every day, including 1,000 children.
Last week in New York, the United Nations held its high-level meeting on AIDS with leaders, HIV/AIDS organizations and activists from more than 30 countries in attendance. The three-day meeting concluded on June 10 with a declaration that set a number of bold targets to be achieved by 2015, including doubling the number of people on antiretroviral drugs to 15 million; reducing by half the number of new cases involving the transmission of HIV through sexual activity or injection of drugs; ending the transmission of HIV from mother to child; halving tuberculosis deaths among people living with HIV; and increasing preventative measures for the “most vulnerable populations,” including gay men, drug users and sex workers.
The boldest goal of all was announced by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, who called for an international commitment to eliminate AIDS by 2020. “That is our goal — zero new infections, zero stigma and zero AIDS-related deaths. Toward this end, U.N. member states also pledged to increase AIDS-related spending in low- and middle-income countries to between $22-$24 billion by 2015, Mr. Ban declared.
Although the availability of more than 30 licensed drugs has made AIDS a chronic illness rather than an automatic death sentence for many patients — at least for those with access to such treatments — the disease remains incurable and prevention is by far the best approach to combat this scourge.
Although the total number of HIV/AIDS cases in Japan remains low compared to other countries, very worrisome trends exist. Media coverage of the disease is declining and public complacency is rising — factors that have no doubt contributed to a doubling in the number of newly HIV-infected people in the past 10 years. In 1990, 97 people were found to be newly infected with HIV. Since 2004, however, the number of new HIV cases diagnosed annually has exceeded 1,000. In 2010, 1,503 people were found to have been infected with HIV, and a record high 453 people were diagnosed with AIDS. The vast majority of infections were sexually transmitted.
And this could be merely the tip of the iceberg, because the decline in AIDS awareness in Japan has resulted in fewer people taking HIV tests. In 2009, 122,493 people underwent HIV testing, but in 2010 this figure plunged to 103,007. Last year, roughly 30 percent of the people newly diagnosed with HIV only found out they were infected after they developed AIDS symptoms. Early detection of HIV infection is critical both because the disease is much easier to manage, and because carriers can take precautions to avoid spreading the deadly virus.
Mr. Ban’s goal to eliminate AIDS by 2020 is exceptionally ambitious — but only by setting our sights extremely high can we hope to end this deadly scourge. Given the surge in the number of HIV/AIDS cases here, Japan should adopt the same target. The health ministry must step up its efforts to make people aware that this disease still poses a very real threat, and that most public health centers across the nation offer free, anonymous HIV tests. Information on centers offering such tests can be found on the health ministry’s HIV Kensa Sodan Map website (www.hivkensa.com).
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