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DC09

Oblivious Japan May Be on Brink of AIDS Explosion

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YOKOHAMA, Japan (Reuters) - As midnight nears, lights flash and rock music throbs, as a line forms in one corner of the busy club in the port city of Yokohama, near Tokyo.

Faces tense, each person is ushered behind a curtain, steeling themselves as Tsuneo Akaeda draws their blood.

Akaeda, a doctor, is casual in a baseball cap, T-shirt and purple-striped Bermuda shorts, head bobbing to the music, but his mission is deadly serious: free AIDS tests, an attempt to check what experts say may be a looming explosion of the disease.

Some say it may already be too late, noting that while the numbers still are relatively small, Japan is one of the only advanced nations where AIDS cases have not dropped dramatically.

"There is no sense of urgency," Akaeda, 60, said. "But there are many people who have HIV, and, in five years, lots will get sick and everyone will be surprised.

"Right now AIDS is like a ghost. It's sort of scary but since it's still noon, it's far from everybody's mind."

But it is there. In 2003, 976 new HIV/AIDS cases were reported, the highest annual figure and about a tenth of all cases since 1985.

Some experts warn cumulative numbers could jump to 50,000 by 2010 due to increased youth sexual activity, less condom use and official indifference, symbolized by falling budgets.

Worse though, may be general public apathy.

"It's impossible for people to think AIDS has anything to do with them," said Masahiro Kihara, a professor at Kyoto University. "AIDS is Africa. It's America. It's gay.

"The ignorance is huge ... so this is a very dangerous situation," he added. "I think the estimate of 50,000 by 2010 might be an underprediction."

Japan's view of AIDS has been colored by a scandal involving tainted blood products that led to about 2,000 of Japan's hemophiliacs becoming infected, the deaths of several hundred and sparked a series of lawsuits.

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