June 17, 2011
The number of new AIDS cases in Japan rose to a new high of 469 last year, mostly among men who have sex with men, according to last month's report by the Health and Welfare Ministry. The 1,075 new HIV diagnoses last year were also an increase, 54 more than in 2009. A leading complaint from activists is that the government is reluctant to do much analysis with this data.
"The problem is a tendency to view the issue as a foreign one, leading to the denial of an effective national solution," said Abbey Freu, a counselor at the grassroots AIDS Network Yokohama (ANY). "Japanese authorities release statistics based on tests, a system that creates a false sense of security because the figures are small. The result is less public awareness that has pushed HIV and AIDS to remain an underground issue."
Though diagnoses increased, uptake of free HIV testing actually declined, from 150,000 in 2009 to 130,000 last year. Condom use has declined by about two-thirds from what it was a decade ago, experts said. The government, however, has announced it is slashing funds to HIV/AIDS organizations.
More needs to be done at the nongovernmental level, said Dr. Tsuneo Akaeda, a gynecologist and leading advocate against youth STDs/HIV. "AIDS awareness is a key prevention strategy and this can be done successfully, starting with peer counseling in schools led by teachers and parents," Akaeda said, though this has yet to happen.
"Sex is a taboo subject in Japanese society," said Akaeda. "Naturally, HIV testing is something people dread in this kind of society because it will lead to social ostracism."
To work within social constraints, ANY combines its prevention information with awareness and defense against sexual predators, Freu said.