THE number of HIV victims in South West Dorset has shot up by 50 per cent in the past year.

Weymouth's Park Centre for Sexual Health has diagnosed eight new patients in the last three months and seen its figures rise from 38 to 56 in 2006.

Instead of traditional at-risk groups, including drug users and gay men, the fastest-growing group of new patients is heterosexuals under 25.

Experts claim people know less about HIV transmission now than they did five years ago and are taking risks because they think there is a cure.

Clinical nurse specialist Val Fletcher-Burnett said: "We are concerned that these people are not in the 'at-risk' groups - they are heterosexuals whose only risk factor is having unprotected sex.

"So we aren't just talking about gay men and drug users - people are under that misconception, but they're going to wake up with a shock soon."

At the Park Centre there are now as many women with HIV as there are men, and the patients range from 17-year-old girls to a 70-year-old heterosexual man.

Mrs Fletcher-Burnett said: "In between we have men and women - mainly under-25s - gay men and married couples.

"The problem with HIV is that people think it's gone away and a lot of people choose to take risks.

"It's like smoking - they think 'It's not going to happen to me'.

"We know people are taking risks because our teenage pregnancy rates are still going up and one in five of the young people coming through the door has chlamydia.

"Young people know they should be careful but drinking plays a part and then they lose their inhibitions."

She added: "The other reason people aren't so worried is that they think there's a cure.

"There's very good treatment for HIV, but there isn't a cure.

"They will be on medication for the rest of their life and be vulnerable to all sorts of things."

To mark World Aids Day today Dorset's sexual health centres are encouraging people to find out more.

Mrs Fletcher-Burnett said: "There is still a stigma to HIV. We want people to come in and get a red ribbon to show the community we are not frightened of HIV and we are taking it on board."

For information call the Park Centre on 01305 762682.