A strong stigma against AIDS in Japan is hampering access to treatment in the world's second-largest economy, activists said on Wednesday, even as experts warn an explosion of the deadly disease may be looming. HIV is spreading fast in Asia, home to 60% of the world's population, and experts warn that the fight must be intensified or the region risks having the epidemic spin out of control, much as it did in Africa.
The issue will be taken up at an Asia-Pacific AIDS Conference in the western city of Kobe, July 1-5.
Affluent, well-educated Japan may be one of the world's most advanced nations, yet it is also the only such nation where HIV cases have not dropped dramatically, a situation that AIDS activist Hiroshi Hasegawa blames at least partly on prejudice against both the disease and its sufferers. "In Asia many people cannot gain access to AIDS treatment due to poverty, but in Japan many people cannot access treatment because of the strong stigma," He said at news conference.
Hasegawa, who is in his early 50s, is openly gay, rare itself in conservative Japan, and in 1996 became one of the first Japanese to announce publicly that he was HIV-positive. "The way the problem presents itself in different countries varies due to social and political factors, but the situation is the same," he added.
In 2004 there were 1,165 new HIV cases reported in Japan, the highest annual figure yet and more than a tenth of all reported cases since 1985. Some experts warn that cumulative numbers could jump to 50,000 by 2010 due to such factors as decreased condom use and increased sexual activity among teenagers. Nearly half of all 17-year-old girls have had sex, up from around 17% in 1990. For boys, the figure is 40%, nearly double the 1990 figure, health ministry data show.
Official indifference is also seen as a factor. "In Japan, AIDS policy is handled by one bureau in the health ministry," Hasegawa said. "But in many other places, it becomes a national campaign, taken up by the nation's top leaders."
Hasegawa said the stigma against AIDS in Japan is partly due to squeamishness about frankly discussing sex in either homes or schools--a reluctance many see as ironic in a nation where pornography abounds. Minimal coordination between government ministries has hampered AIDS teaching in schools, where sex education itself is the focus of debate between those who want more detailed education and others who say schools are already too explicit. There is also a widespread view that the only people in danger are special groups such as gays or hemophiliacs, some 2,000 of whom became infected due to tainted blood products. (Reuters)