Montreal's senior monthly since 1986

Feb '10


HIV/AIDS 'epidemic' crosses generational borders

When most people think of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), they most likely associate it with young men and women. However, a new phenomenon is starting to emerge, raising the question of whether HIV in those over 50 is on its way to becoming a major problem.

According to an HIV/AIDS infection study released by researchers at the University of Waterloo, persons older than 40 are the fastest-growing segment for new cases of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. A 2004 study by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) found that the largest increase in prevalence of HIV since the peak of the AIDS panic from the mid-1980s to 2002 was among those over 50.

In the university study, which was presented at a conference on HIV research in Toronto last November, graduate student Katie Mairs and gerontology professor Sandra Bullock focused on rising rates of HIV/AIDS among older residents of Florida. The prevalence of AIDS among those older than 50 was found to be highest in that southern U.S. state, where many Canadians spend part or all of the winter. The researchers warned of the potential consequences for snowbirds who travel south each year from Canada to spend their winters in Florida.

In their analysis, they found that fewer than one in five Canadians older than 50 who spent at least a month in Florida had been tested for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Because there is no chance of pregnancy, the 50-plus set is less likely to use condoms. As such, the sexually liberated Baby Boom generation could be unaware of the danger to which they are being exposed.

Dr. Judy Gould, a project leader with the Canadian Working Group on HIV and Rehabilitation in Toronto, cited some basic statistics on HIV and older Canadians produced in 2007 by the PHAC. In 2006, more than 13 per cent of all reported positive HIV tests were for individuals 50 years or older, and a third of those arose from contacts that were heterosexual.

Although not alarming, Gould suggested the numbers might provide useful information to older people “who may need some prevention reminders or just having HIV on their radar.”

Linda Farha, volunteer president of Montreal’s Farha Foundation, which raises funds for research on HIV/AIDS, was more direct. She has no doubt that the heterosexual population exposed to HIV/AIDS patients is growing, while noting that Baby Boomers are rediscovering what it is like to be single. She pointed out that there are about a million divorced Canadian boomers. Since this segment of the population wasn’t directly affected by the first waves of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the 1980s and 1990s, which heightened safe sex awareness, “it’s not something that enters their minds,” Farha said.

Monique Doolittle-Romas, executive-director of the Toronto-based Canadian AIDS Society, said that preliminary studies on HIV/AIDS among the aging in Canada are underway.

“Presently, there are more unanswered questions than there is knowledge in this area,” she said. “The HIV epidemic is clearly evolving and we need to change our focus along with it. We need to focus on developing campaigns to study the sexual behaviours of older Canadians and research their attitudes and awareness level about HIV/AIDS.

“We also need to develop awareness and prevention campaigns targeted specifically to this new group of people affected by HIV/AIDS.”

Another important area of study, she added, relates to how HIV interacts with other conditions common to aging, such as depression, cardiovascular disease, menopause, prostate cancer, arthritis, osteoporosis, and hypertension. “We need to understand how treatment for these age-related illnesses will react with ARVs (antiretroviral drugs) and if the onset of these illnesses is brought on earlier for those infected with HIV,” Doolittle-Romas said.

Adapting HIV-101 for seniors
AIDS Community Care Montreal, a group dedicated to helping those with HIV/AIDS while promoting community awareness and action, has started focusing on the impact of the disease on seniors by adapting its information programs for seniors.

“At the moment, we have what’s called HIV-101 and we have another workshop called Safer Sex,” said Doug McColeman, the group’s director of education and prevention.

“They were initially written for youth, but we’re still adapting them.”

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