Young people in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are poorly educated about the risks of AIDS, helping the disease to spread at faster rates than anywhere else in the world, the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) warned.
In a report by its study institute released last week, UNICEF said that the disease, which is in its relative infancy in the former communist states compared to the United States, Africa and Western Europe, was moving "virtually unchecked" into the mainstream population in several countries.
The disease is spreading fastest in Estonia, where one person in 1,000 was infected last year - almost 20 times the average rate in the European Union according to the report.
About 1 million people were estimated to be infected with HIV or AIDS in the region compared with 420,000 in 1998, the majority of them intravenous drug users.
But UNICEF cautioned that there was an increasing trend of sexual transmission and a rising proportion of HIV/AIDS cases among women.
Newly registered cases increased more than fivefold and 90 percent of them occurred in Russia and Ukraine, the report said.
"HIV/AIDS has a young face in this region," Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF said in a statement.
"Young people account for most new infections and their low levels of HIV awareness, combined with increasingly risky behavior, herald a catastrophe," she added.
In the Commonwealth of Independent States - a loose alliance of most of the former Soviet republics - almost 80 percent of new infections officially recorded between 1997 and 2000 involved people under 29 years old, the report said.
A survey by the agency found that young people in the CIS and Eastern European states were generally less aware of prevention than their Western counterparts.
Less than 70 percent of teenagers in Belarus, Ukraine or Latvia knew that condoms were an effective means of prevention, compared with rates of around 90 percent in some Western European countries.
"We are seeing the spread of HIV/AIDS into the mainstream population in the countries that were first affected," Bellamy said.