Studies Show Seniors at Increasing Risk of HIV Infection
Nov. 12, 1999 (Chicago) -- It seems there's
a new kind of 'Happy Meal' making the rounds in buildings where elderly men
live. The package consists of food, perhaps champagne, and the drug Viagra
(sildenafil) for arousal. Prostitutes deliver the goodies on the day when the
monthly social security check arrives in a sex-for-money
To public health officials, these senior
sexual adventures are anything but harmless. Researchers at this week's 127th
annual meeting of the American Public Health Association say evidence is
showing that older Americans are at growing risk for contracting
"We know that older people often have
trouble getting access to sex. So they may be indiscriminate about who their
sexual partners are. They may be embarrassed about taking precautions,"
Nathan Linsk, PhD, tells WebMD. Linsk, of the Jane Addams College of Social
Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has studied America's aging HIV
epidemic with growing concern.
He estimates that about 10-15% of those
older than 50 are infected with HIV. That number is similar to the general
population, but Linsk insists age confers its own special risks. While many
seniors are sexually active and a growing number are IV drug users, older
people are more reluctant to use condoms than their younger
Linsk points to what he calls the double
whammy of "ageism and AIDSism" rendering older HIV patients
increasingly on the sidelines of HIV treatment. Meanwhile, Linsk says some
providers may be reluctant to start toxic multidrug therapy for AIDS in these
patients, cynically assuming they have "little life left."
Postmenopausal women may be emotionally and
physically vulnerable to HIV, according to several studies presented at the
conference. Because so few men are available, women may be reluctant to insist
that their partner wear a condom. Meanwhile, the thinning of the vaginal walls
with age can make older women more prone to intercourse-induced trauma, raising
the risk of contracting the disease.
While safe-sex messages and posters are
virtually ubiquitous, Linsk points out that the images portray the young, not
those in their golden years.
Focus groups conducted last year on New
York state residents older than 50 paint a disturbing picture, says Kathleen
Nokes, PhD, RN, of the Hunter-Bellevue College of Nursing. Twenty-seven percent
of those surveyed thought that they had put themselves at risk for HIV through
unprotected sex. About one-third admitted having sex with someone other than
his or her regular partner during the previous year.
Nokes decries the lack of federal or
private public health outreach to older Americans on the perils of HIV. "I
think we can fix it by having a drug company like Pfizer that's selling a
medication [for erectile dysfunction] and making billions of dollars on it,
incorporating within their packet insert the importance of putting a condom
on," Nokes tells WebMD. A Pfizer official at the meeting declined to
comment on the suggestion.
In recent years, advocacy groups like the
National Association on HIV over Fifty have sprung up, with goals of increasing
awareness and pushing for a stronger public health response.