A Rising Challenge: Seniors at the Risk of HIV Infection

According to the WHO (World Health Organization), 1 million people die every year from HIV because they either don’t know they have HIV or begin their treatment too late. Having claimed over 35 million lives so far, HIV is a subject that needs due attention.

On the occasion of World AIDS Day 2018, which is marked on 1st December every year around the globe, let us look at the risk of HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and AIDS amongst senior citizens.

While HIV has for long been considered as a disease that primarily affects younger people, studies paint a different picture. The number of people infected with HIV is on the rise. In fact, research suggests that the percentage of the populace with HIV (aged 50 or above) has risen to over 17 percent over the last 10 years. Experts also reckon that the elderly are vulnerable to this virus progressing into AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome).

Understanding HIV and AIDS

HIV targets an individual’s immune system and weakens their defense against infections and cancers. This gradually leads to immunodeficiency. The most advanced stage of HIV infection is called AIDS and it can take a person anywhere between 2 and 15 years to develop this syndrome.

When Do HIV Symptoms Occur?

Serious HIV symptoms might not surface until much later since it takes time for the virus to progressively weaken the immune system. Initial symptoms may include fever, cough, rashes, headaches and a sore throat. Over a period of time, one must look out for the following symptoms: -

- Weight loss

- Sustained fever

- Diarrhea

- Swollen lymph nodes

Infection, Transmission and Risk Factors

The virus is communicated via bodily fluids like semen, blood, breast milk and vaginal discharge. The following activities or events may put you at a greater risk of getting infected:

- Having unprotected sex (vaginal or anal)

- Using contaminated needles or syringes

- Blood transfusion

- Tissue transplant

- Undergoing a medical procedure that involves unsterile cutting or piercing through the skin

- Sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs) like herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia and bacterial vaginosis

No matter how healthy or careful you are, you cannot rule out the chances of getting HIV at any point of time in your life.

Why Seniors are At a Risk of HIV

Here are some main reasons why older people are more likely to be diagnosed with an HIV infection:

1. Awareness

The older generation is less likely to be entirely aware of the risks related to HIV and hence, they might indulge in unprotected sex. Practicing unsafe sex with unknown people is known to be one of the leading causes of the spread of this virus. The lack of education about HIV and AIDS (and the longstanding social stigma attached to it) makes it difficult for seniors to openly talk about their sexual habits to their doctors or family members.

2. Immunity

With aging comes to a rapid decline in the body’s natural immunity system, thus making it difficult for seniors to withstand viruses and infections.

3. Changes in the body

Aging leads to certain changes in the human body (especially in the case of women). Such changes are closely linked to HIV-related risks during sex.

4. Medical practices

Unsafe blood transfusion and the usage of contaminated injecting tools are also common ways of getting infected. In a country like India, where ‘good’ and ‘reliable’ hospitals are concentrated in metropolitan areas, such practices are not uncommon.

Know Your Status with HIV Self-Testing

Only 70 percent of those living with HIV actually know their status.

In the underdeveloped parts of the world, the awareness about HIV and AIDS and the difference between the two is very little. It is then obvious that they wouldn’t even know if they are living with the disease. The World Health Organization is actively promoting a campaign that they call “Know Your Status” which primarily aims to advocate HIV self-testing.

HIV self-testing can be done in complete privacy and is an effective way to diagnose whether an individual is affected by the virus. This is especially great for areas where access to healthcare facilities is not up to the mark or in cases where a person wishes to maintain confidentiality. This year, the theme “Know Your Status” urges people to evaluate their HIV infection status via self-testing. The WHO is also helping people gain access to HIV prevention, treatment and care services (among other things).

Can an HIV Infection Be Cured?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for HIV infection. However, antiretroviral drug therapy (ART or ARV) can help control the virus and also prevent transmission. In fact, in the last 17 years, ART has helped save millions of lives around the world:

1. New HIV infections fell by 36%

2. HIV-related deaths fell by 38%

3. Approximately 11.4 million lives were saved

This method of treatment not only suppresses the virus and disables it from replicating, but also enables the affected individual’s body to regain its ability to ward off infections.

We hope we have given you enough insight into the threat that HIV/AIDS poses to our world. AIDS amongst senior citizens is common in Africa and South East Asia, but early detection, diagnosis, and proper care can ensure that individuals with the virus can live a long, healthy and happy life.

Let’s pledge to spread awareness about the topic and make the WHO’s vision of eradicating AIDS by 2030 a reality!