HIV is on the rise among older women, study finds

Roland Chesters of Luminate

HIV is on the rise among older women as they remain sexually active – but without using protection. 

There has been a five-fold increase of women aged between 45 and 56 receiving care for HIV in the UK in the last ten years, a study has found.

This is partly because people are living longer with the infection due to advances in medicine – but 20 per cent of new diagnoses have been made in women aged 50 or over.

Changing attitudes

The increase has been put down to the rising divorce rate in Britain and a more liberal attitude to sex in general. Yet this group is often left out of HIV prevention, education and research.

Roland Chesters, who was given just two weeks to live after being diagnosed with HIV at a late stage, has campaigned for greater awareness and understanding about the virus.

The disability development consultant from Luminate, who was only tested after he attended a doctor’s appointment with his male partner, has shared real life experiences in his book,  Ripples – From the Edge of Life.

Hidden issue

He said: “When I was writing my book, I found it very difficult to get women to come forward and volunteer their stories to be included. HIV in women – and particularly in post-menopausal women – is a growing issue and a largely hidden one.

“I’m very grateful that three women actually did offer their stories to be included.   

“Sue Mason is an inspirational woman and together we share our experiences of living with HIV at various schools and institutions – as part of Terrence Higgins Trust Positive Voices.

“It’s time we recognised that HIV can affect people from all walks of life and stop the stigma surrounding it.”

Lack of awareness

Older women can be at greater risk of acquiring HIV during sex because their vaginal walls are thinner and drier than younger women, which can cause tears in the area.

People who have come out of long marriages or who have been bereaved may be having sex with new partners for the first time and unaware of the need to use condoms.

They are also less are likely to have been screened for STDs and an infection picked up years ago – perhaps through an act of infidelity – may have gone unnoticed for a long time.

Menopause and HIV

The PRIME study (Positive Transitions Through the Menopause) is one of the largest studies of HIV and ageing in women globally.

It found women who had been diagnosed with HIV would sometimes struggle to access the right menopause care – with nearly half saying they did not have enough information.

Dr Shema Tariq, who was the lead researcher on the study, said: “HIV treatment has advanced to the point where people are living long and healthy lives with HIV.

“If you look at women in particular, over the last decade we’ve seen a five-fold increase in the number of women living with HIV in their 40s and 50s.”

National HIV Testing Week starts on Saturday.