The first major study of the AIDS epidemic in developing countries found very high awareness of the disease, but few people who believe they are at risk of catching the HIV virus.
The study of 24 countries in Africa, seven in Asia and eight in Latin America and the Caribbean found that even in places where there is a high prevalence of HIV, the virus which causes AIDS, most people feel the risk of contracting AIDS is low.
"We need to inform people about the risks -- that their risks are not insignificant -- and in addition there have to be clear messages on what can be done and where to go," said Joseph Chamie, director of the U.N. Population Division, which compiled the study.
In the African island nation of Comoros, about 50 percent of women believed they were at moderate or great risk of getting AIDS. But in several countries, including the Dominican Republic, Eritrea and Niger, up to 90 percent or more believed their risk of catching the disease was quite low, the study found.
Among young people, the study found that schools have had limited impact on raising awareness. The single most important source of information was the radio.
More research is needed on how to change sexual behavior to help prevent the spread of infection, Chamie said.
"Awareness is increasing but behavior remains risky," Chamie said. "We see differences between rural and urban areas, with rural areas doing much worse than urban areas. There is also a gap between men and women."
The study was based on surveys of about 5,000 households in each country, and was conducted mainly during the mid-to-late 1990s.
Chamie said his impression is that there have been behavioral changes since then, especially among men reducing their number of partners and some using condoms. But condom use is still not popular.
"It is clear that we need enormous behavioral change in the reproductive and sexual practices of men and women in order to effectively deal with the increasing consequences of the epidemic," Chamie said.