Senior citizens living with HIV sidelined

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Most studies conducted on the HIV and Aids pandemic, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, have shown that young and middle-aged people between 15 and 49 years, have been hit the hardest by the virus.

This has seen most programmes designed to fight the continued spread of the virus targeted at young people.

In the process, however, the elderly due to the belief they are not as sexually active have been literally ignored although many among them are also infected.

Senior citizens living with HIV said they were being neglected in HIV-related programmes and data collection projects.

Gone were the days when being HIV positive was a natural death sentence. Many people are now living well up to their 60s due to advanced medication.

Imagine a seventy-year-old grandma waiting in the same queue with a twenty-year old at a clinic to get their anti-retroviral treatment. Its very difficult even for a young counsellor to counsel a senior citizen, said Priscilla Gavi of Help Age, a non-profit organisation which caters for the needs of senior citizens.

Under the Zimbabwean law, a senior citizen is a person who is sixty years and above. However, statistics from ZimStat show that the available data of people living with HIV for males end at 55 and for females at 49.

We regard people who are well over the age categories of 55 for males and 49 for females not to be sexually active, said a ZimStat official.

Judging from cases tried in courts senior citizens were often involved in sex crimes, showing they were still sexually active. Some of the senior citizens who spoke to NewsDay admitted that they are sexually active. We are sexually active and even at the age of eighty, one would still be sexually active, said one senior citizen.

Harare-based medical doctor Mlungisi Ndebele said the human body was designed to be sexually active until the time of death.

The sexual libido decreases, but senior citizens still enjoy sex and they need to be taught safe sex methods because we have witnessed a number of cases where this group of people engages in risky sexual behaviour, he said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says the number of HIV and Aids cases among older people is higher than generally thought. WHO says older people are generally not considered to be at high risk because they are believed to be less sexually active than younger people.

HIV, the virus that causes Aids, is mainly transmitted through sexual intercourse. Young people, who tend to be most sexually active, are mostly at risk of getting the disease.

The disease has no age boundaries; yet WHO said older individuals were rarely included in demographic health surveys. A Medical officer with WHO HIV and Aids Department, George Schmidt, said data was mainly collected from people between the ages of 15 and 49 years. He said few surveys included people above 50 years.

But an examination of the surveys that do exist, he said, showed a high prevalence of HIV among this older generation.

We have been a bit surprised to find the ratio of individuals aged 50 years and older with HIV infection is about one-quarter to one-third that of the younger age groups, which to us is somewhat surprisingly high, he said.

It is also high in part because when we acquire HIV at a younger age, we live for a reasonably long time. For example, he noted, people infected with HIV between ages five and 14 could expect to live more than 13 years, whereas this declined to four years with regard to those infected at age 65 and above.

Studies showed older individuals were less likely to practice safe sex. Dr Schmidt said this heightened the risk of getting and spreading the disease. While it was important for infections to be identified as early as possible, he said screening was less common for older adults.

Physicians do not discuss sexual activity and risk factors for HIV infection nor are they as likely to suspect HIV infection in older persons. Physicians need to heighten their awareness that older individuals can have risk factors for HIV infection and discuss those risk factors, including sexual activity with older individuals, he said.

Dr Schmidt said the prevalence of HIV among sexually-active older people was a largely unexplored area.

He said more research and attention needed to be paid to the problem.

He said it was important to understand why and when these people were becoming infected. That way public health campaigns could be better targeted to prevent such infections.