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Older women and HIV: The missing link to ending the epidemic

27 Jul 2012

Medical research and effective treatment for those living with HIV means that the epidemic is ageing rapidly. Someone who is diagnosed HIV positive in the United States today at the age of 20 and has access to antiretroviral therapy (ART), has an average life expectancy of another 52 years.

Also in the United States, by 2015, more than 50% of people receiving ART will be over 50. One out of ten people receiving ART in Africa today is 50 and over.

Older people excluded from HIV response

This is a clear sign that HIV and AIDS is increasingly an issue and a challenge for older people. Yet, there is a lack of focus on older men and women across the whole HIV and AIDS response; from planning, to strategy, to funding.

It is older women, however, who bear the brunt of this neglect. HelpAge and UNAIDS organised a special session at AIDS 2012, the International AIDS conference happening in Washington DC this week, which focused on the issues of older women living with HIV.

Women activists from Kenya and Ghana shared their experiences and detailed how older women are discriminated against in HIV testing, diagnosis and treatment. They also spoke about rights violation against people living with HIV. As part of the session, there was also an animation showing the impact of HIV on older women through three personal stories.

Deprived of medical support and discriminated against

This stigma takes its toll on the lives of older women, as well as having an impact on their families. Many are disowned by their communities, friends and sometimes family. There is a belief among many that HIV only affects young people. As a result, older people are deprived of basic medical support and suffer violence.

"Older women, like all others have the right to a sexual life and good health," commented an AIDS 2012 activist. "Often, older women's needs and vulnerabilities are not considered and discussed at all in HIV and AIDS plans," she added.

"Just bringing this issue to the table is in itself a big achievement for HelpAge and UNAIDS," said another female activist.

Older women not only suffer from neglect and discrimination, they also have to many responsibilities as caregivers in their families.

Need to involve older women

According to a UNAIDS speaker in the session, it is absolutely vital to include the issue of older women in their work. The goal of zero new infections will not be achieved unless older women are part of the overall picture.

Richard Blewitt, HelpAge's Chief Executive stated: "It is deeply tragic that older women's issues are not included in HIV policies and resources allocation. Achieving the goal of an AIDS free generation is not possible without reaching out to older women living with HIV."

Read more about work on how older people are affected by HIV and AIDS.

Download our latest Ageways highlighting the need to include older people in HIV statistics.

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Author profile

Prakash Tyagi
Country: India
Job title: Director, GRAVIS

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These blogs are personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the views of HelpAge International.