A new report released ahead of World AIDS Day says social and economic inequalities are fueling the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The International Red Cross released its findings Friday in Bogota, Columbia.

“Despite efforts to reduce the impact of HIV in the region, many of these factors have not been adequately addressed,” says the report. “Most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are affected by social and economic inequality which creates a growing gap in health conditions between those who can afford medical services and have access to higher education and those who live in precarious conditions with little or no medical services and limited access to education and prevention information.”

Haiti continues to lead the region with the highest rate of infection, while Chile has the lowest.

New infections for Latin American in 2007, the latest estimates available, totaled 140,000, bringing up to 1.7 million the number of people living with HIV in the region. About three-quarters of the estimated 230,000 people living with HIV in the Caribbean are from Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In total, 77,000 people died of AIDS in 2007, the report said.

Sex between men is the primary mode of transmission in Latin America, while unprotected heterosexual intercourse is driving the Caribbean's epidemic. Sex between men also plays a significant factor in the epidemics of several Caribbean nations.

Epidemics in Latin America and the Caribbean remain largely confined to members of at-risk groups: men who have sex with men, prisoners, sex workers and injecting drug users.

One example cited was in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina and its largest city, where HIV infection among bisexual and gay men is between 7 and 15 percent, but the nation has an overall low infection rate, just .06 percent of adults.

The report concludes that the region's most vulnerable populations and minorities are bearing the brunt of the pandemic; social and economic inequalities widen the gap.

“Understanding the local specificities of the HIV pandemic is key to success in reducing the scale of HIV transmission. It is vital to work directly with most at risk populations to try to prevent further infections, employing a range of approaches such as peer education and behaviour change communication,” Julie Hoare, the IFRC’s health and social services coordinator for the Americas, said in a statement. “Addressing vulnerability by advocating on behalf of the most vulnerable communities confronted with the threat of HIV, improving access to services and reducing stigma and discrimination are equally important.”

World AIDS Days is Tuesday, December 1.