Fewer than four in 10 people are aware that the vast majority of HIV infections in the UK are caused by unsafe sex, a survey has revealed.

The National AIDS Trust survey of 12,000 people also revealed that 46 per cent wrongly believe that HIV can be contracted by being bitten, spat at or by coming into contact with a used needle.

Some 90 per cent of HIV cases are contracted from unprotected sex, a fact only 39 per cent of those polled were aware of, according to the survey.

It also emerged that those taking part in the survey believe HIV is a lot less prevalent these days than it was in the 1980s and 1990s.

Some 45 per cent of those polled wrongly assumed that the highest number of HIV diagnoses among homosexual men in a single year occurred in the 1980s or 1990s. In actual fact, the highest number of HIV positive tests for a single year occurred in 2011.

NAT chief executive Deborah Jack said: “We often read stories in the media about people having to take HIV tests after being spat at, bit or stepping on a needle in a park. However, the risk from these activities is either non-existent or incredibly low.

“Misinformation about how you can contract HIV leads to anxiety and feeds stigma and discrimination towards people living with the disease. This stigma can be incredibly damaging. It is also an immense distraction from the overwhelming risk factor for HIV in the UK - unsafe sex.”

She added: “It is a common misconception that HIV is a problem of the past. In fact, the number of people living with HIV in the UK hit 96,000 in 2011, with 6,280 new diagnoses that year.

“As a matter of urgency the government needs to put resources behind educating people that HIV hasn’t gone away, it is more prevalent than ever and safer sex is vital to reduce HIV transmission.”