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WHO:  HIV/AIDS Spreading Among Older People

The World Health Organization says the number of cases of HIV/AIDS among older people is higher than generally thought. WHO says older people are generally not considered to be at high risk because they are believed to be less sexually active than younger people.

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is mainly transmitted through sexual intercourse. Young people, who tend to be most sexually active, are most at risk of getting the disease.

The disease has no age boundaries, yet, the World Health Organization says older individuals rarely are included in demographic health surveys.

Medical Officer with WHO's HIV/AIDS Department, George Schmidt, tells VOA, data is mainly collected from people between the ages of 15 and 49. He says few surveys include people 50 or older.

But, an examination of the surveys that do exist, he says, finds a high prevalence of HIV among this older category of people.

"We have been a bit surprised to find that the proportion of individuals aged 50 years and older with HIV infection is about one-quarter to one-third that of the younger age groups, which to us is a somewhat surprisingly high proportion," he said. "It is also high in part because when we acquire HIV at a younger age, we live for a reasonably long time."

For example, he notes people infected with HIV between ages five and 14 can expect to live more than 13 years; whereas, this declines to four years in those infected at age 65 or older.

Many studies show older individuals are less likely to practice safe sex. Dr. Schmidt says this heightens the risk of getting and spreading the disease. While it is important for infections to be identified as early as possible, he says screening is less common for older adults.

"Physicians do not discuss sexual activity and risk factors for HIV infection nor are they as likely to suspect HIV infection in an older individual as much as they are in a younger individual … Physicians need to heighten their awareness that older individuals can well have risk factors for HIV infection and discuss those risk factors, including sexual activity with older individuals," he said.

Dr. Schmidt says the prevalence of HIV among sexually active older people is a largely unexplored area. He says more research and attention needs to be paid to the problem.

He says it is important to understand why and when these people are becoming infected. That way public health campaigns can be better targeted to prevent such infections.