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NO ONE is safe from contracting HIV, experts warned yesterday.

Cases of the deadly disease have TREBLED since 1999 - as the country faces up to a sex disease epidemic.

Last year 399 people caught HIV, up 10 per cent from 2002, statistics released for National Aids Day showed. That's more than one new case a day.

Last night experts said: "HIV can happen to anyone."

The National Disease Surveillance figures, issued by the Dublin Aids Alliance, also showed almost 3,500 people are now battling the disease in this country.

And more than 60 per cent of new infections last year were among heterosexuals.

Women are even more likely to catch the virus than men, with females accounting for 52 per cent of cases last year.

The number of new infections is now running at an all-time high, compared to less than 100 a year in the 1990s.

Young people are more at risk, with the average age of a newly-diagnosed victim in Ireland being less than 30.

Girls as young as 19 are now testing positive for HIV after having unprotected sex, according to a top Irish doctor.

Dr Derek Freedman, who specialises in sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), is not surprised at the growing rate of HIV transmission in the heterosexual population.

He said: "I saw more cases of HIV last year than I saw in the previous decade.

"It is rising, both in the homosexual and heterosexual population.

"And it is primarily the younger age groups who are testing positive.

"When you take a risk for one STD, you take a risk for all, including HIV.

"Nobody should be surprised about the rise in HIV, as it goes hand in hand with the rise in all STDs."

In recent years Dublin has experienced the largest epidemic of syphilis seen in the western world.

Dr Freedman said: "You would have thought in this day and age that people would be taking precautions.

"But alcohol has a large role to play.

"You wonder how young people have sex at all when they are so drunk.

"Knowing the person you are going to have sex with is the first precaution. The second is to use a condom."

The figures also showed the problem is not mainly confined to intra-venous drug users - in 2003 less than seven per cent of cases involved infected needles.

The complacent attitude to Aids in Ireland became apparent in April when a top judge claimed all victims of the disease started out on cannabis. District Court Judge William Harnett was slammed for his remarks, which he made during a case of alleged cannabis supply.

He said: "Why there is a benign attitude to cannabis resin, I do not know. People with HIV or those who die from Aids all started by taking cannabis resin."

The statistics showed more than 50 new cases of Aids are diagnosed annually in this country. …