HIV rates rise FIVE-FOLD in a decade among menopausal women ‘because they feel there is no longer any need to use condoms’
- Researchers found there are 10,500 HIV patients of ‘potentially menopausal age’
- They predict there will be more a further 10,000 needing treatment by 2023
- A reduced risk of pregnancy may make older people complacent about condoms
HIV rates are rising among middle-aged women in England because of unprotected sex, according to researchers.
A study found the number of women aged between 45 and 56 who needed HIV treatment is five times higher than it was a decade ago.
Women in this age bracket may be going through, or have already been through, the menopause, which means they’re unlikely to get pregnant.
They’re still vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections, however, and experts suggest recklessness when it comes to contraception may be partly to blame.
But the main reason for the rise, according to HIV charity the Terrence Higgins Trust, is that modern treatments mean far more patients are living into middle and old age.
Most people with HIV in the UK are taking antiviral medication which means levels of the virus are so low in their bodies that they cannot pass it on (stock image of a virus)
An ongoing study called Positive Transitions Through the Menopause (PRIME) looks into HIV and sex in ageing women.
The latest phase has surveyed around 1,500 women aged between 45 and 60 who attend HIV clinics across England.
The researchers said there were 10,500 women of ‘potentially menopausal’ age going to clinics to get treatment for the sexually transmitted virus.
This was a five-fold increase over a 10-year period, they said, and they predicted there would be another 10,000 patients reaching that age bracket by 2023.
Clinics are ‘struggling’ to cope with soaring numbers of STIs because dating apps are encouraging casual sex, experts have warned warned.
Cases of syphilis rose by half in Wales between 2016 and 2017, and record numbers of over-65s are getting syphilis, gonorrhoea and chlamydia in England, figures have shown.
Experts and doctors in the field have warned the fast turnaround of partners and rise in casual sex fuelled by online dating apps may be making catching an STI more likely.
And they also make it more difficult to contact past partners, who may not have mutual friends.
Dr Olwen Williams, president of the British Association of Sexual Health and HIV told the BBC in October: ‘The frequency of app hook-ups and dating apps used as a sort of medium to access sexual activity seems to have increased significantly.
‘What we can say about sexual mixing and sexual networking is that things have changed considerably.
‘We’re seeing a genuine rise in STIs. If we were just seeing an increase in testing then our figures would look slightly different, but it feels that way.
‘Certainly in my career I’ve never seen so much gonorrhoea or syphilis in my area, ever.’
Lead researcher Dr Shema Tariq told The Sun: ‘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.’
The study doesn’t explain why women in middle age are needing more HIV treatment, nor whether there are more new infections or just ageing patients.
Effective treatment means HIV patients live longer now than they did decades ago, which may lead to more of them surviving into their sixties, making the rate rise.
The Terrence Higgins Trust explained that patients in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t have good enough medicine to stay healthy for as long.
The surge in older HIV patients is ‘uncharted territory’, the charity said.
There have also been suggestions that attitudes to sex may be outdated in that age group, particularly among those whose relationships break down.
In 2017 Iain Murtagh, chief executive of HIV and Aids support charity The Crescent, said: ‘People are coming out of long-term relationships and thinking that condoms are only for contraception.
‘So if they’re menopausal or have had a vasectomy or hysterectomy in their previous relationship, then contraception doesn’t even cross their minds – and they are acquiring HIV and other STIs as a consequence.
‘Many people aren’t aware HIV is still an issue, they think it has gone away, so they can be quite blase about protection.’
HIV is a virus which weakens the immune system and, if left untreated, can lead to AIDS – acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
The vast majority of HIV patients in the UK take antiviral medication which means they have undetectable levels of the virus and cannot pass it on.
However, among those who don’t take the medication the main reason is that they don’t know they have the disease.
Around 80 per cent of people suffer a short flu-like illness after they become infected but, after that, HIV may not cause symptoms for years afterwards.
This makes it more likely that they will be lax with contraception and more likely to pass on the virus.
WHY MODERN MEDS MEAN HIV IS NOT A DEATH SENTENCE
Prior to 1996, HIV was a death sentence.
Then, ART (anti-retroviral therapy) was made, suppressing the virus, and meaning a person can live as long a life as anyone else, despite having HIV.
Drugs were also invented to lower an HIV-negative person’s risk of contracting the virus by 99%.
In recent years, research has shown that ART can suppress HIV to such an extent that it makes the virus untransmittable to sexual partners.
That has spurred a movement to downgrade the crime of infecting a person with HIV: it leaves the victim on life-long, costly medication, but it does not mean certain death.
Here is more about the new life-saving and preventative drugs:
1. Drugs for HIV-positive people
It suppresses their viral load so the virus is untransmittable
In 1996, anti-retroviral therapy (ART) was discovered.
The drug, a triple combination, turned HIV from a fatal diagnosis to a manageable chronic condition.
It suppresses the virus, preventing it from developing into AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), which makes the body unable to withstand infections.
After six months of religiously taking the daily pill, it suppresses the virus to such an extent that it’s undetectable.
And once a person’s viral load is undetectable, they cannot transmit HIV to anyone else, according to scores of studies including a decade-long study by the National Institutes of Health.
Public health bodies around the world now acknowledge that U=U (undetectable equals untransmittable).
2. Drugs for HIV-negative people
It is 99% effective at preventing HIV
PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) became available in 2012.
This pill works like ‘the pill’ – it is taken daily and is 99 percent effective at preventing HIV infection (more effective than the contraceptive pill is at preventing pregnancy).
It consists of two medicines (tenofovir dosproxil fumarate and emtricitabine). Those medicines can mount an immediate attack on any trace of HIV that enters the person’s bloodstream, before it is able to spread throughout the body.
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