SEXUAL health experts have expressed concern at the high proportion of people in the region being diagnosed with HIV at a late stage.

While early diagnosis is associated with a better outlook for patients, having a late diagnosis is associated with increased chances of developing Aids and dying.

Health Protection Agency experts are stressing that HIV remains a serious infection which, if left untreated, can be life-threatening.

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It followed an announcement that the number of people diagnosed with HIV in the North-East has fallen.

The HPA said there was a 14 per cent decrease in the North-East in 2011 compared to the previous year.

The HPA's annual 'HIV in the UK' report found there were 127 new diagnoses of HIV in the North-East compared to 147 in the previous year. The region also continues to have one of the lowest rates of HIV in England with 4.87 cases diagnosed per 100,000 people which is half the national rate (10.09 per 100,000).

A total of 368 new cases were reported in the Yorkshire and the Humber region in 2011, compared to 379 cases in 2010. Nationally, there were 6,280 new HIV diagnoses in 2011, taking the total number of people living with HIV in the UK to around 96,000. This compares to 1,385 people in the North East who are living with HIV.

Dr Kirsty Foster, a North-East HPA consultant, said: "The fall in newly diagnosed HIV cases in the North-East is welcome but it is too early to tell if figures are beginning to stabilise, so we must not become complacent.

"Advancements in treatment now mean the sooner HIV and other sexually transmitted infections are diagnosed and treated, the better the treatment outcome and the lower the risk of passing it on to others.

"However, late HIV diagnosis continues to be a significant challenge for the North East. In 2011, almost half of all new cases were diagnosed late or very late. This is of particular concern as we know that the health outcomes for people who are diagnosed 'late' or 'very late' are significantly worse than if diagnosed early.

"Testing for HIV and all sexually transmitted infections is both free and confidential and we advise anyone who has had unprotected sex with a new or casual partner to get tested. The best way to protect yourself is by using condoms with all new and casual partners."