Senior citizens among highest-risk groups for contracting HIV and AIDS, usually through sexual contact

By Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2018/9/6 17:03:40

Older people are having more sex than before, sometimes with multiple partners

They are unaware of the risks of not using condoms as they no longer worry about becoming pregnant

Sometimes their children hide their diagnosis of HIV and AIDS from them, fearing that they may live with stigma or be unable to accept the news

Many citizens, including old people and migrant workers, come to get free condoms in a promotion activity on AIDS prevention in Chengdu, Southwest China's Sichuan Province on December 1, 2005. Photo: CFP

Wang Tong (pseudonym), a widower in his early seventies in Shanghai, could not believe it when his doctor told him that he was HIV positive several years ago.

Wang received the diagnosis from a routine medical checkup prior to surgery to remove gallstones.

The unexpected test results shocked him. He later revealed to his doctor that he'd been having affairs with two female friends for several years.

Wang is one of a growing number of senior citizens in China, especially males, who are diagnosed with HIV.

According to the five-year plan on AIDS prevention issued by the State Council last year, senior citizens were listed as a priority for the disease's prevention in China for the first time.

A 2016 report by the Xinhua News Agency said about 13,000 Chinese males aged above 60 were diagnosed as living with HIV or AIDS in the first nine months of 2016, 3.6 times the number in 2010, and nearly six times the number of those aged 15 to 24.

Although older people are often considered as less sexually active, experts say heterosexual contact, one of the dominant modes of HIV transmission among older people, and the fact that many old people do not consider themselves at risk of the disease are exactly the reasons why it is spreading so fast among them.

Rise in infections

According to a 2012 report by China's Ministry of Health, from 2000 to 2011, the proportion of total HIV cases accounted for by the 50-64 age group increased from 1.6 percent to 13.8 percent, and those of the 65 and older age group increased from 0.34 percent to 7.3 percent.

In some areas, the statistics are even more staggering.

Of people living with HIV or AIDS, the percentage aged 50 or older rose from 16.5 percent in 2007 to 42.7 percent in 2011, in Nanning, capital of Southwest Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, according to a study led by Liu Hongjie published in the journal AIDS Patient Care and STDs in 2012.

Older people in China are having more sex than before, according to surveys conducted by Pan Suiming, a professor at the Institute of Sexuality and Gender at the Renmin University of China.

From 2000 to 2015, among people aged between 50 to 61, those who have sex twice and more each week increased from 1 percent to 10 percent, and those who are defined as lacking in sex - having sex less than once a month - dropped from 60 percent to 40 percent, news magazine Vista reported.

"As their living standard rises, a lot of older people are more open to sex and have higher sexual desire than before. But in the meantime, many of them may be less likely to use condoms and to practice safer sex as they no longer worry about becoming pregnant. This may raise their risk for HIV infection," Chen Xiaoyu, director of an HIV and AIDS project at the disease control and prevention center in Leshan, Southwest Sichuan Province, told the Global Times.

In 2015, a 91-year-old woman in Yiwu, East China's Zhejiang Province, was diagnosed with AIDS, making her the oldest person living with AIDS in the city, local news portal reported.

The widow, who had lived alone for about 20 years, told staff at the local disease control and prevention center that she sometimes took in rubbish collectors, both as a company and as a source of income, and had sexual intercourse with two or three men in their sixties.

More sex, less awareness

Peng Xiaohui, a sexology professor at Wuhan's Central China Normal University, said some old people have multiple sex partners due to the death of their spouses or other reasons.

"The rise in sexual partners increased their risks of being infected with HIV/AIDS," he told the Global Times.

Some old people use square dancing, a popular exercise routine among China's middle-aged and retired men and women, as an occasion to find sex partners. A Beijing Times report in 2016 cited the case of a 52-year-old man who had over 50 sex partners he met during square dances. He and over a dozen of his sex partners were later diagnosed with AIDS.

Others, including elderly people who have no family members around, chose to satisfy their sexual desires through prostitutes, usually middle-aged women.

As they don't consider themselves at risk of the disease, many are unaware of their infection.

"Most of the older people I've seen have been carrying the virus for years before they were diagnosed, often through a regular medical check-up or when they were undergoing treatment for other diseases. This lack of awareness for the disease is another reason why it spread quickly among them," Chen said.

Children's attitude

For these old people, diagnosis is only the beginning. They will have to live with stigma and endure treatment for the rest of their life.

Chen said this is why many children of the older patients choose not to tell them that they're infected with HIV, fearing that the news will upset them. Others avoid telling them fearing stigma or discrimination.

Last year, Bengbu Daily's WeChat account reported the case of a 90-year-old man who was diagnosed with AIDS. His children said the widower might have contacted the disease through paid sex in his village.

After learning of his disease, his children chose not to tell him the diagnosis, in part fearing that he would have to live with stigma, and in part fearing he would be unable to accept the news. After getting free medication from the community's disease prevention center, they would strip away its packaging before giving it to their father.

Others would choose to give up treatment for fear of discrimination, as medication for antiretroviral therapy is often given to patients through communities, and it is not easy to keep it a secret. Some would try to treat their parents in a different village or city.

Chen said while he often encourages older people to go through antiretroviral therapy, some have to forego treatment as these medications often come with strong side effects.

"If they already have many other diseases and a medical checkup shows their body conditions are too weak for it, we would sometimes suggest against treatment as it will affect their liver and kidney functions," he said.

Cheng Shuaishuai, a 28-year-old man from Central China's Henan Province who is now working in AIDS counseling, said, "The elderly are more fragile and more vulnerable to social discrimination. And unlike young people who can find support and gain knowledge of the disease through social media, they have to deal with their illness alone."

Chen said children can play a vital role in the prevention of HIV and AIDS among old people. He cited the case of his friend, whose father works as a migrant worker in the city all year long as his mother takes care of his child in their hometown. "He told his father that if he had to go to a prostitute, he would mail him a box of condoms. He told him that he could totally understand his needs," Chen said.

Communities and companies of retired people can also carry out campaigns for safer sex, Peng said.


Newspaper headline: Elderly at risk

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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