June 3, 2005
With a first-rate health system and widespread condom use, Japanese had long felt protected from AIDS, a disease many still associate with gays, foreigners, and hemophiliacs. If Japan had, as some experts say, nearly four times the official 10,070 HIV infections, that would equal roughly 1 infection in every 3,000 people. That compares to about 1 infection for every 100 Thais, or 1 in every 1,500 Chinese, according to UNAIDS estimates.
Nonetheless, in 2004 there were a record 1,165 new infections in Japan, a 14 percent jump comparable to increases in sub-Saharan Africa, by UNAIDS estimates. Japan's cumulative number of HIV infections is believed to double every four years and could reach 50,000 by 2010, said a 2004 report by the Japan Center for International Exchange.
While HIV is spreading quickest among males under 35, and homosexual transmissions comprise the majority, the Health Ministry's 2004 annual report noted that infections are occurring at roughly the same rate among heterosexuals and homosexuals. The ministry is hoping to develop countermeasures soon, said Health Minister Hidehisa Otsuji.
Satoshi Kimuri, head of the AIDS Clinical Center at Tokyo's International Medical Center, estimates that 20,000-30,000 Japanese do not know they have HIV.
"The average person just doesn't seem to be able to grasp the immediacy of the threat," said Shizuko Tominaga, a health official for Tokyo, where, despite reporting one new infection a day, the AIDS budget has been cut by two-thirds, to $2 million this year.
"The nature of the problem has changed, and sexual transmission is an urgent issue," said Tokyo city health official Mami Iida.