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Some 3 million people around the world caught the AIDS virus in the past year - one-third of them in Asia - with no slowdown in new cases in sight, health officials said.

While AIDS has largely leveled off in the United States and other Western countries, the virus continues to plague sub-Saharan Africa and is tearing into Asia.More people became infected last year than in any previous year, and the global total now stands at more than 17 million people, said Dr. Michael Merson, head of the World Health Organization's AIDS program.

In outlining the scope of the epidemic at the 10th International Conference on AIDS, Merson said more than 10 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are believed to have the AIDS virus - more than any other region of the world.

AIDS has become a huge killer there. For instance, in the Masaka district of Uganda, AIDS causes nearly half of all deaths. In those under age 35, it is responsible for 90 percent of deaths.

In the United States and other industrialized countries, the number of people dying from AIDS roughly offsets the number contracting HIV, the AIDS virus. Between 800,000 and 1 million Americans are thought to be infected.

But the AIDS virus is now spreading faster in Asia than anywhere else, mainly in India, Burma and Thailand. One third of the 3 million new infections occurred in Asia, Merson said.

Health officials fear a vast Asian AIDS epidemic unless something is done immediately to head it off.

"It is so urgent to act here in Asia before we get an explosion of infection," Merson said. "We are running out of time."