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LONDON (Reuters) - Transmission of the AIDS virus seems to be "out of control" among gay men in France despite an overall fall in the number of new HIV cases in the country, according to a study published on Thursday.
Scientists from the French National Institute for Public Health Surveillance found that nearly half of the 7,000 people newly infected with HIV in the country in 2008 were gay men, and the incidence among homosexual men is 200 times higher than in the heterosexual population.
Experts said the findings showed that French authorities needed to revise and renew prevention strategies and ensure they were properly targeted at groups most at risk of HIV infection.
The human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS infects 33.4 million people globally. In sub-Saharan Africa, 22.4 million people have it, and Eastern Europe currently has the fastest growing HIV epidemic in the world.
Thursday's study, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal, found that HIV in France fell significantly from 8,930 new infections in 2003 to 6,940 in 2008.
But the number of new infections among gay men was stable despite a decline in other groups, and accounted for 48 percent of new cases in France in 2008.
Non-French-nationals living in France accounted for around 23 percent of all new infections in 2008 and for 45 percent of the infections transmitted heterosexually. Most were immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, the researchers said.
The number of new infections among injecting drug users -- a group in which HIV epidemics are spreading rapidly in other parts of Europe -- was low and stable in France over the 5-year study period, accounting for only 1 or 2 percent of new infections every year.
"Our results provide a new perspective on the HIV epidemic in France," said Stephane le Vu, who led the research.
"HIV transmission disproportionately affects certain risk groups and seems to be out of control in the MSM population," he said, using an acronym for men who have sex with men.
Since AIDS emerged in the 1980s, 60 million people have been infected with virus that causes it and 25 million have died. HIV is spread in blood, during sex and in breast milk. Drug users can spread it by sharing needles with infected people.
In a commentary on the findings, Robert Hogg from the British Colombia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS in Vancouver, Canada, said the French data reflected an "unacceptably high" number of new infections among gay men worldwide.
He said authorities should seek to tackle the problem with a combined prevention approach which would include promoting prevention measures such as condom use among gay men and expanding access to AIDS drugs for all eligible HIV patients.
Recent studies have shown that treating HIV patients early in their disease and with potent cocktails of AIDS drugs not only helps them live longer but also significantly reduces the spread of the virus to others.
Editing by Paul Taylor