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For the first time, the number of HIV infections has fallen in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, but they are still increasing globally, according to a report by UN agencies.

The report says adult infection rates in Kenya fell from a peak of ten per cent in the late 1990s to seven per cent in 2003. In Zimbabwe, the rate of infection among pregnant women fell from 26 per cent to 21 per cent between 2003 and 2004.

Caribbean countries where HIV prevalence has fallen include the Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

The Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organization published the figures yesterday (21 November) in their report Aids Epidemic Update 2005. It attributes the declines to factors such as a rise in condom use, delayed onset of sexual activity and people having fewer sexual partners.

The good news has, however, been overshadowed by the fact that global HIV infection rates are still increasing — according to UNAIDS, from 39.4 million in 2003 to 40.3 million in 2005.

"We are encouraged by the gains that have been made in some countries and by the fact that sustained HIV prevention programmes have played a key part in bringing down infections," said UNAIDS executive director, Peter Piot, at the report's launch. "But the reality is that the AIDS epidemic continues to outstrip global and national efforts to contain it."

While infection rates are growing fastest in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa continues to have the greatest total number of people living with HIV/AIDS — and 64 per cent of new infections.

The report blames rising HIV rates on a widespread lack of knowledge about HIV transmission and safe sex, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

"It is clear that a rapid increase in the scale and scope of HIV prevention programmes is urgently needed," said Piot. "We must move from small projects with short-term horizons to long-term, comprehensive strategies."

Seth Berkley, president of the International Aids Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), agrees, calling for investment in long-term solutions such as AIDS vaccines and microbicides.

"New technologies are our best hope for drastically reversing new infection rates and halting the AIDS epidemic," he says.

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