The number of HIV positive South Africans over 50 has increased from 4,7% in 2005 to 9,7% in 2012.

This is according to the World Health Organisation, which found that the highest proportion of older people living with HIV was those in the 50-54 age group with 13,2% being infected.

In the Northern Cape support groups for people living with HIV have been established by NAPWA (National Association Of People Living with HIV), were it has been found that about 20% of people over 50 are HIV positive.

Aids programmes today are focusing on young people only, and that is why older people are still at risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

These people say they are bothered by the fact that current programmes promoting Aids awareness ten to exclude older people – particularly those who don’t know their status.

Maria Magabe (*not her real name) is 61 years old and has been living with HIV for more than 22 years. She once belonged to a support group, which she says she left it because it was “all about youth and the younger generation”. She felt like she did not fit in because of her age.

“Aids programmes today are focusing on young people only, and that is why older people are still at risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections,“ she said.

“As we age we become more vulnerable because we are not catered for by these programmes,” Magabe explained.

“We need a platform for older people living with HIV, because as experienced older people living with HIV we are the ones best able to convince other older people to go for testing so that they can know their status earlier and start treatment earlier.”

‘Immune suppression’

According to the People  Living with HIV Sector Leader in the District, Agnes Sibi,  HIV infection progresses more rapidly in older persons because of the presence of the other underlying chronic diseases and undernourishment. These are more common in older individuals and contribute to immune suppression.

“Older people are also less likely to use condoms because today`s generation views condoms as a tool for young people, and this can lead to more reinfections and early deaths for older sexually active people who don’t use them,” Sibi said.

Magabe continued to urge the National Association of People Living with HIV in the district to revive awareness programs that will cater for older people in the community.

“Older people living with HIV are also facing new challenges as they now have to guide their own children. This a dual responsibility for them and their children and grandchildren who are sometimes also infected with HIV,” said Magabe.

“HIV is perceived as a disease for young people, so when an older person shares her story of living openly with HIV it doubles the stigma.”

Magabe added that most elderly people do not want to participate In community dialogues when HIV is introduced as a topic, because they believe it is not relevant for them, and they also did not see any value in being tested.

“The myth is that this is a lifestyle disease for young people. When (older people) test HIV positive, they always claim it is through blood contact because they are usually taking care of their sick families. They never want to talk about being sexually active and not practicing safe sex, simply because safer sexual practices are for the young generation,” Magabe said.

“The District Civil Society Forum in the John Taolo Gaetsewe District AIDS Council has not yet introduced a sector for older people and there is a need for that. Older people need to be heard, their input is important in shaping the forum,” Magabe said.

“We may all be HIV positive, but our challenges and experiences are not the same. They differ along with our ages, and unless something is done now by civil society, the already pressured health system will not cope with the added burden,” says Magabe.

Sibi says the idea is welcomed, but the problem will be funding that is needed in order to present training workshops and community around the province.

An edited version of this story published by Health24.