Declining HIV infection rates in some countries are being eclipsed by huge rises in others where AIDS awareness and access to new drug therapies are lacking, according to a new U.N. report.

In parts of Africa, one adult in four is infected with the virus that causes AIDS while the figure is less than 1 percent in the United States and across Western Europe, experts said in the report released Tuesday.The report provided country-by-country statistics to back up a study released in November, which estimated that 2.3 million people died of AIDS in 1997, up 50 percent from 1996. About 16,000 people a day contract HIV.

The latest study, by the World Health Organization and UNAIDS, comes ahead of Sunday's opening of the 12th World AIDS Conference in Geneva, where 12,000 specialists and others will discuss advances in HIV research.

Limited education about the virus is a major hurdle, particularly because an effective cure may be at least 10 years away, UNAIDS Director-General Peter Piot said.

"Let's be very aware AIDS is with us to stay for a very long time," Piot said.

Access to new therapies for AIDS-related infections such as tuberculosis and diarrhea is the "overwhelming issue" for 90 percent of those living with the AIDS virus, the report said.

Zimbabwe and Botswana, where UNAIDS estimates around one in four adults carry HIV, had the highest infection rates.

The United States figure was 0.76 percent - 820,000 people in all. It was less than 1 percent across Western Europe.

North Africa and the Middle East are "the great unknown," with cultural difficulties in talking about the epidemic hampering collection of statistics, UNAIDS said.

Political courage to prevent the spread of AIDS is the key to narrowing the "AIDS gap," Piot said.