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There are many things in the world which are ageist: HIV is not one of them. An estimated one in 14 people living with HIV are aged 50 and over.
Millions more older people are at risk of contracting the virus because governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are still not targeting older people in HIV prevention programmes.
On 23 November 2010, UNAIDS launched its latest Global Report on the AIDS Epidemic with findings based on reports submitted by member states to the UN earlier this year. The report makes no specific reference to the impact of HIV on those aged 50 and over and includes no data for this age group. It only makes one reference to older people by saying UNAIDS ‘recognises the burden of infection and disease beyond the age of 49’, but continues to present prevalence data for the 15-49 year age group only.
Since UNAIDS doesn't request government data on this age group, health ministries rarely collect data for people aged 50 and over. This means little is known about the scale of the HIV epidemic among those over 49 and older people remain invisible.
A small number of countries have independently decided to monitor prevalence in the 50+ age group. And they have uncovered surprising data.
In Kenya, HIV prevalence for the 50-54 age group is 8 per cent while that for the 20-24 year age group is 6 per cent. And yet only the younger age group is considered a key target.
Some factors place older people at higher risk of HIV infection than younger people. Older people are generally excluded from HIV and AIDS education programmes, so they do not learn how to protect themselves. Health workers may not consider testing older people for HIV because they and older people themselves do not think that older people are at risk.
Some doctors feel uncomfortable discussing sex with older patients or assume their older patients are not sexually active. Doctors may also misdiagnose early symptoms of HIV infection – fatigue, weakness, memory changes – as 'normal signs of ageing'. Lack of screening for sexual problems can increase the risk of a disease going unnoticed for years.
Emily, aged 62, from South Africa (pictured above), says 'The whole process has been very slow. I discovered I was unwell because my glands became swollen and I had chest pains and I was coughing a lot... Although now my glands aren’t painful, I feel so tired all the time.’
This is problematic because the longer HIV goes undetected, the more difficult it is to treat and stabilise with anti-retroviral drugs.
In 2011, there will be a high level UN meeting on HIV in New York where progress on the HIV response will be reviewed and new global targets are likely to be set. It is crucial that older people are included.
HIV does not discriminate by age: neither should the UN.
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