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AIDS continues 'devastating' sweep

LONDON, England (CNN) -- The virus that causes AIDS is continuing to spread worldwide at a dramatic pace, with eastern Europe particularly hard hit, the United Nations has warned.

The U.N. report, released to coincide with World AIDS Day on Saturday that aims to raise global awareness of the disease, revealed that 75,000 new infections of the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome had been reported in Russia by early November, a 15-fold increase in just three years.

The U.N. also warned that AIDS was continuing to spread worldwide at a dramatic pace, with 40 million children and adults infected by HIV, an increase of four million from last year.

Dr Peter Piot, executive director of the U.N. programme on HIV/AIDS, UNAIDS, warned: "HIV is spreading rapidly throughout the entire Eastern European region.

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"It is unequivocally the most devastating disease we have ever faced and it will get worse before it gets better."

In an interview published in a Russian newspaper on Saturday, Piot said millions in Russia could die from AIDS over the next decade if the government does not take fundamental steps to fight the spread of the disease.

"All will depend on which position the leadership of the country takes," Piot told the newspaper Vremya.

European Union trade chief Pascal Lamy said the EU was determined to do all in its power to make sure that safe, affordable drugs were available to all who need them in the struggle to combat HIV-AIDS and other killer diseases.

Ukraine's Health Minister, Vitaliy Moskalenko, said that three government anti-AIDS programmes between 1992 and 2000 slowed the epidemic, while the current 2001-2003 program may even stop it, according to the Interfax news agency.

The current programme in Ukraine has focused on AIDS prevention measures among youth and removing the stigma associated with the disease.

Piot praised Ukraine's achievements but warned that the situation may worsen among the youth, Interfax reported.

The United Nations estimates that the number of victims in Ukraine has risen from 110,000 in 1997 to as many as 240,000 in 1999.

The Christian agency World Vision called on Saturday for the church to take a more realistic attitude to the use of condoms in an attempt to slow the global spread of the disease.

And in Kenya, doctors are trying to convince men to tell their wives if they are HIV-positive in an effort to reduce the spread of the disease, Dr. James Nyikal, chairman of the Kenya Medical Association, said.

There are more than two million HIV-positive people in Kenya's population of 30 million. Many married Kenyan men have more than one wife or have multiple sexual partners.

Across Africa there were 3.4 million new infections with more than 30% of pregnant women in some areas HIV positive.

Unknowing infection

In Trinidad, Dr. Ruben Del Prado, regional programme adviser for UNAIDS, said Caribbean governments must relax laws criminalising homosexuality and prostitution if they hope to combat AIDS.

Gays and prostitutes "will not come forward to be tested, educated and to be treated, because there are laws against them," Del Prado told The Associated Press.

The Caribbean, excluding Cuba, has an HIV infection rate of nearly 2 percent -- the second-highest regional rate after sub-Saharan Africa. About 500,000 people in the Caribbean live with the disease; by contrast, aggressive campaigns in Cuba have kept infection rates there low.

In the United States, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Thursday that nearly 30 percent of people deemed at risk for HIV have never been tested and could be unknowingly spreading the virus that causes AIDS.

The study involved more than 30,000 people in the United States. Some 73 percent of those considered at risk for HIV said they had been tested, but only 30 percent said they had been tested in the previous year.

In Thailand, the government bowed to AIDS patients' demands on Friday and agreed to provide AIDS treatment under a government programme that offers medical care for 30 baht (70 U.S. cents) per hospital visit.

Thailand is credited with bringing down its rate of HIV/AIDS infection by 80 percent after a massive awareness and condom distribution campaign in the early 1990s.

Heterosexual spread

Meanwhile in Britain, research from Taylor Nelson Sofres Healthcare (TNSH) showed that 54% of all new HIV infections were from heterosexual sex. Previously most infection had been caused by intravenous drug use or homosexual sex.

The HIVDynamics Monitor study detailing more than 2,000 HIV patients in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK, shows infection through heterosexual contact has also increased in Italy rising from 28% last year to 47% this year.

In Spain and Italy over half (52%) of all HIV infections are due to drug abuse compared with just 7% in the UK.

Spain and Italy also report much lower transmission rates through homosexual contact than the rest of Europe (18% compared with 50% in Germany and 40% in the UK).

UK government data shows that more than 33,000 Britons aged 15 to 59 have HIV -- 10% above the estimate for the end of 1998. This is believed to be the most since records began in 1982.


• World AIDS Day
• UNAIDS: The Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS

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