The United Nations on Monday urged countries across the world to expand screening of newborn infants exposed to the virus that causes AIDS, saying it could save the lives of countless children.

"Without appropriate treatment, half of children with HIV will die from an HIV-related cause by their second birthday," Ann Veneman, executive director of the U.N. children's fund UNICEF, said about a new U.N. AIDS report launched in New York on the 20th World AIDS Day.

"Survival rates are up to 75 percent higher for HIV-positive newborns who are diagnosed and begin treatment within their first 12 weeks," she said in a statement.

The report said there was visible progress in the fight against AIDS — some 3 million people worldwide are currently receiving treatment and the number of new infections and AIDS deaths has dropped. But negative trends remain.

The report — prepared by UNICEF, the U.N. AIDS program UNAIDS, the World Health Organization, and the U.N. Population Fund — warned that pregnant women were not receiving sufficient counseling and other services necessary to teach them about contraception and safer infant feeding.

It said many children less than a year old were dying of AIDS-related illnesses before they are even tested for HIV.

But there are ways of dealing with infants that have the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.

The report cited the example of South Africa, where babies born to HIV-positive mothers were being tested for HIV at six weeks of age. Many of those who test positive receive anti-retroviral treatment, it said.

"A recent study found increased survival rates among infants who were provided with antiretroviral therapy as soon as they were diagnosed with HIV," the report said.

Challenges

It said early infant testing was being expanded in other countries hit hard by AIDS, including Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Swaziland and Zambia.

The report also recommends increased access to tests assessing immune functions of HIV-positive mothers to determine their stage of HIV infection.

This will help them make decisions about their own health and treatment needs and reduce the chance of the virus being passed to their babies.

There are other challenges in the fight against AIDS. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it was important to continue to fund efforts to eradicate the disease, despite the global financial turmoil.

"We have to maintain this momentum, especially during the time of financial crisis," Ban said at a conference on the crisis in Doha. "Funding shortages could take a deadly toll."

Separately, the United Nations said it has appointed Michel Sidibe of Mali as the new head of UNAIDS. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria said French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy has agreed to serve as an ambassador for the protection of mothers and children against AIDS.

HIV has infected some 33 million people worldwide — 22 million in sub-Saharan Africa alone — and AIDS now ranks among the world's top 10 killer diseases. An estimated 25 million people have died of the incurable condition, the No. 1 killer in Africa.