Japan: Ministry Plans Free HIV Tests at Hospitals

Japan's Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry (HLWM)will make free, anonymous HIV tests available at hospitals beginning in fiscal 2005, officials said Saturday. The service will be in addition to the existing public health centers that offer HIV tests, officials said. HLWM hopes to encourage earlier testing and reduce the likelihood that blood donor facilities would be used as unofficial testing centers.

HLWM said Japan reported 976 HIV cases in 2003, a record high. And some AIDS patients died because of delays in detecting the disease. Last year, 87 people who donated blood tested HIV-positive, up from 34 in 1992.

While public health centers provide free, anonymous HIV tests, they typically do so only once a week in sessions lasting about two hours. Legal and health insurance administration problems block ordinary hospitals from providing HIV tests free and anonymously.

To bypass those difficulties, HLWM will allow the Japanese Red Cross Society to commission medical institutions to conduct the tests. Those who want an HIV test can be interviewed by blood donor facility doctors, who will refer the patient for testing at a designated medical institution. The Red Cross Society will pay about ¥7,000 ($64) for each free test. HLWM anticipates ¥200 million-¥300 million ($1.8 million-$2.7 million) altogether to subsidize the tests.

Free public HIV testing peaked in Japan in 1992 at about 135,000, according to HLWM. Recent years have seen annual tests at 50,000-70,000. HLWM plans to pilot the program in Hokkaido, Tokyo and the Osaka Prefecture, and will expand the program if it proves successful.