The number of new HIV carriers and AIDS patients diagnosed here last year has risen somewhat, from an annual average of 322 between 2000 and 2004 to 350 cases in 2005, according to the Health Ministry. The latest statistics, released Wednesday to mark World AIDS Day, which is held every December 1, may reflect increased infection or more people going for testing. The World Health Organization and the United Nations AIDS prevention program UNAIDS say there are nearly 40 million people around the world who are HIV carriers or have full-blown AIDS, with 4.3 million newly infected and 2.6 million having died of the disease in 2006. Since 1981, when the AIDS virus was first discovered, there have been 4,662 known Israeli HIV carriers and AIDS patients; 3,647 of them are still alive, while the rest either died or left the country. According to estimates, there are actually more than 5,100 carriers and AIDS patients in Israel, with about 1,500 not yet diagnosed. HIV carriers can be diagnosed in community health fund clinics at ministry-funded AIDS centers. In addition, there are seven other centers run by voluntary organizations for diagnosis, counselling and treatment. The basket of health services supplied by the health funds for HIV carriers and AIDS patients is among the most generous in the world, with six new medications added in 2005 and two more this year. The ministry and voluntary organizations use World AIDS Day to promote public awareness of the disease and to special population groups. Web sites run in cooperation with homosexual/lesbian organizations show video films and have professional forums. This year's theme is "Condoms: Deciding on it together," and a special poster with that message has been produced by the ministry. A separate campaign for homosexuals will be held on Friday, with condoms and informational material distributed by voluntary organizations. There has been an increase in the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in male homosexuals in recent years, according to the ministry. An effort to discourage drinking and unprotected sex among homosexuals has been launched on Internet sites and in places frequented by homosexuals. Between 1981 and 2005, people who inject themselves with drugs constituted 14.7% of all those newly diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. As a result, the ministry, the Israel Anti-Drugs Authority and the Jerusalem Methadone Center have developed an interventional program to reduce infection among drug users. Workshops have also been held among the Ethiopian immigrant population to prevent the spread of the virus beyond those who were infected in their native country. Meanwhile, Soroka University Medical Center in Beersheba is running a special project to encourage HIV/AIDS patients to take care of themselves and take the anti-retroviral "cocktail" as required. Some 85% of their carriers and patients are immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. As a result, teams speaking Russian and Amharic have been trained to provide information and treatment. The Tel Aviv University Students' Association, Clalit Health Services and the Rabin Medical Center will offer free HIV tests and distribute free condoms and informational material in the Shenkin gardens in Tel Aviv between 10.30 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Friday. Blood tests will also be available for students on Sunday through Tuesday on the campus next week from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Results will be provided at the university's medical clinic. The UN said that while the AIDS pandemic is spreading around the world, the prevalence of the virus has dropped in eight African countries. Nevertheless, infection rates have skyrocketed by more than 50% in Eastern Europe and Central Asia since 2004. In many other countries, statistics on HIV/AIDS are not accurate because of inadequate testing and poor monitoring and reporting. Because the drug "cocktail" has turned AIDS into a chronic disease rather than an acute fatal one, many high-risk groups, including homosexuals, have abandoned safe-sex practices. In the US, the number of new infections has remained static for a decade at about 40,000 cases a year. The latest student edition of the British Medical Journal quotes HIV co-discoverer Prof. Robert Gallo as saying that 25 years after the first case was reported, HIV/AIDS is killing over 250,000 people -- "akin to a tsunami" every month. "Those early years of 1982 to 1985 may be regarded as representing the fastest pace ever achieved in medical science from the time of the birth of a new disease to advances in its understanding, diagnosis, prevention, and therapy," he said. But Gallo, who developed the first HIV test, also expressed his concern as he watched the epidemic take hold and his initial pessimism about the prospects of effectively treating HIV. "We have effective therapy only because of the basic research in HIV and new forms of therapy will only come from more research." The ultimate answer, of course, is a successful preventive vaccine, he said. Although a vaccine is a formidable challenge, Gallo said he was optimistic for the future.