HIV infections are on the rise. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of Americans over 50 who are infected with HIV have grown over 5 times (16,300 people in 1995, to 90,600 in 2003).
While seniors represent about 14% of people with HIV, senior women represent 18%. The numbers of women with infections are even higher for American women of color, and come in at a staggering 47% when looking at world HIV infection rates. That means that just under half of all HIV infections are found in women worldwide.
Knowledge of Transmission found to be poor!
One reason for the higher number of older women with HIV was found in a study recently published by Emory University . They surveyed 514 women over the age of 50, and found that their knowledge about transmission was poor. For example, approximately 50% of women believed that vasectomies and diaphragms prevent the spread of HIV.
Other reasons include the fact that many older women, who have sex with men, are also not using condoms, knowing they are past the point of having to worry about pregnancy.
Women also erroneously think they can’t get HIV if they are not engaging in behaviors they deem as risky.
The truth of the matter is this. HIV is a virus. It’s an opportunist. It does not care if you are male or female. It does not care who you have sex with, nor the numbers of people you have sex with. It certainly does not care about the color of your skin, you bank balance or you age.
HIV is primarily spread in two ways.
- First is though the sharing of contaminated intravenous drug equipment.
- Second, and more commonly, HIV is spread by unprotected sexual encounters.
Women frequently are the receptive partners, and the receptive partners are more likely to become infected.
Women who are post menopausal are at higher risk because of the changes in the vaginal tissue. With less estrogen to nourish the vagina, the tissue atrophies (becomes thin) and there is less lubrication. A woman can easily get tiny tears in her vaginal tissues, thus leaving an opening for virus to gain entry to her blood stream.
What’s a woman to do?
1. Know your own HIV status.
Contact your health care provider, or (if you want anonymous testing) the local health department for testing. I do not recommend home testing at this time.
First, if you are positive, are you really? And if you are negative, are you really?
If positive, confirmatory blood testing is required. Many offices have started using rapid testing in the office where preliminary results can be obtained in 20 minutes. In the meantime you can get the appropriate information on how you need to proceed.
2. Know your partners history – this goes for both male AND female partners ladies!
Do they have a history of multiple partners and unprotected sexual encounters? Have they been tested? When? Did they get a follow up test at 6 months? What were the results?
3. Condoms and lubrication are essential.
Use them not only on your partners body parts that may be entering you, but also on any toys you may be utilizing as well There are several online and confidential sources to purchase lubricants, condoms and gloves. Here are two businesses that are woman owned. You can feel free to even call them to ask them what they might recommend.
4. Limit your exposure when possible.
Think twice if you are engaging in high risk behavior with a casual or new partner.
5. Educate yourself.
The information presented here is just a small portion of what you need to know. Here are some resources for further reading:
For many women, sexual activity does not stop just because they reach a certain age. I encourage you to continue to enjoy yourselves, but do so safely.
Barbara C. Phillips, MN, NP (published in 2004)