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Studies Show Seniors at Increasing Risk of HIV Infection

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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 transaction.

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 HIV.

"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 counterparts.

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.

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