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A lack of understanding about the impact of HIV on older people means that those aged 50 and over are frequently neglected in the response to this global pandemic.
To mark World AIDS Day - 1 December - we take a look at how this disease affects older people living in poorer countries.
The main form of transmission of HIV is unprotected heterosexual sex. However, a common misconception exists that older people are not sexually active.
This myth is reflected in the collection of data on HIV by countries requested by the UN body UNAIDS. The data often excludes anyone aged 50 or over.
However, our sister organisation, HelpAge International, estimates that 1 in 14 people living with HIV are over 50. Furthermore, 15% of new HIV diagnoses are among this group.
Despites these statistics, older people are frequently excluded from HIV prevention programmes, and do not learn how to protect themselves. With more long-term relationships breaking up than ever before, this is especially important.
Many older people are ignoring safer sex messages, believing that condoms are unnecessary with partners they already know, or that they do not need to use protection post-menopause. In many cultures, it is difficult for women to insist on condom use with their partners.
People in developing countries have been hardest hit by the AIDS pandemic, and the impact on older people is often ignored. For example, although there are more HIV positive people aged 50-54 than there are aged 20-24 in Kenya, it is only the younger age group that is considered a key target in prevention, treatment and care programmes.
Health workers may not consider testing older people for HIV because they do not think that this group is at risk. As a result, older people are more likely to be diagnosed only once they have developed an AIDS-related illness.
Emily, aged 62, from South Africa 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. But I was reassured I didn’t have TB [an opportunistic infection as a result of developing AIDS]. Although my glands aren’t painful, I feel so tired all the time.’
Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) – which reduces damage to the body’s immune system in people living with HIV - is less effective the later it is administered. Clean water and a balanced diet are essential for it to work. And as if that were not bad enough, older people often face age discrimination in health clinics and hospitals.
Ashagre, 65 (pictured above), is from Ethiopia and is living with HIV. He says ‘I don’t think the doctor in the hospital cares much for the older people he has to treat. I eat whatever I can but don’t have much money to spend on food… I hardly ever eat meat or vegetables because they are too expensive.’
Working through our sister organisation, HelpAge International, we specifically target older people in developing countries in our HIV programmes. These include:
Emina, a 60-year-old carer from Uganda, received HIV prevention training from HelpAge International. She says ‘Since older people have gained more knowledge of HIV and can now tell the younger ones more about it… people have started to respect us more. Young people here used to think that older people were not important and had nothing to offer, but now this is changing.’
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