NEWARK, NJ -- April is National Sexually Transmitted Awareness Month. It is an opportune time to draw attention to a health concern that is not often discussed. "Rarely do we consider that people over 50 are impacted by HIV, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus that weakens the body's immune system," says Robert Skeist, R.N., certified AIDS nurse/geriatric specialist at the Family Treatment Center at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. When the immune system becomes very weak or when serious symptoms occur, the condition is then known as AIDS, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
Skeist outlines some steps that individuals over 50 can take to help themselves and others in the fight against HIV/AIDS:
- Get the free rapid HIV test. For your closest site, call 1-866-HIV-CHECK. For the site at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, call (973) 926-5197.
- Get to know potential partners before entering into any sexual relationships.
- Talk honestly with your doctor about your sexual and drug behaviors.
- Have "protection" available ? latex condoms with water soluble (not oil based) lubricants.
- Separate wise precautions from harmful misinformation. You can not get HIV by donating blood, getting tested for HIV, hugging or sitting next to a person living with HIV, swimming in a pool, getting bitten by mosquitoes, or showing compassion.
In New Jersey, more than one of every five new cases of HIV occurs in people over the age of 50, that number exceeds 7,000 of our older family, friends, and neighbors. One third of these HIV-positive elders contracted the virus when they were beyond their fiftieth birthday. How did they "get it?" " The same ways that younger people "get it:" unprotected sex and dirty needles," says Skeist. He points out that for men the greatest risk factors are sex with other males, sharing of needles during intravenous drug use, and heterosexual contact. For women, the biggest risk factors are heterosexual contact and intravenous drug use.
The other two thirds of "HIV Over Fifty" crowd are survivors, people who were infected with the virus at a younger age and have lived with it anywhere from five years to twenty-five years. "Frequently, these are the individuals who have adopted healthier lifestyles, reduced their risky behaviors, visited their doctors regularly, and have taken their medications every day," says Skeist. "With the steady improvement in HIV medications, we expect this group of survivors to continue to grow."
According to Skeist, one group being hit especially hard with HIV is heterosexual women over fifty. "With aging comes a thinning of the vaginal wall, making the delicate tissue more susceptible to little tears which provide a point of entry for the virus to move from the man's semen into the woman's blood stream." Studies have shown that this group of women, some who have recently divorced or widowed, may believe that they do not need to use condoms, which they associate with birth control during their post menopause years. "Another misnomer is that oftentimes women believe they are having sex in the context of a mutually monogamous relationship, only to learn later that their male partner was having sex with another man, a female prostitute, or another partner," says Skeist.
"The truth is that HIV is a virus that does not "care" how old you are, your gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. All it looks for is a way to survive and spread from one human host to another," Skeist says. " HIV spreads through the sharing of bodily fluids, in particular blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. No one should ever use a needle that another person has already used, whether for insulin or illegal substances. Likewise, no one should have sex without a high quality condom, unless they are certain they are in a mutually faithful relationship with only one person and both individuals have been tested HIV-negative," he concludes.
Rob Skeist is a nationally certified AIDS nurse, the geriatric specialist at the Family Treatment Center of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, and founder of the New Jersey Association on HIV Over Fifty. To request further information or to help promote prevention in your community, contact Robert Skeist, RN, at
(973) 926-6826 or by email at email@example.com.
Date: March, 2006
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