Waverley Care is Scotland’s leading charity providing care and support to people living with HIV and Hepatitis C and to their partners, families and carers. They have urged women in Scotland to get tested for HIV because many are being diagnosed dangerously late.
Waverley Care have warned that women in their 40s, 50s and 60s are slipping through the net of diagnosis because doctors assume they don’t fall into a high risk category.
The key to managing HIV is to catch it early, when it is a manageable chronic disease and not the death sentence it was once deemed to be.
But last year, more than a third of people who tested positive in Scotland were diagnosed late – at a point when the virus had already done significant damage to their immune system.
Martha Baillie, a senior manager with the Edinburgh charity, said that cases were being missed because of the ignorance of women themselves and the medical profession.
Women no longer feel pressured to stay in long-term relationships but when they become sexually active again, some are playing Russian roulette with their health by having unsafe sex.
Martha said: “Women are back on the relationship scene in a way they haven’t been for a long time and there is still an assumption that HIV is about gay men and drug users. They don’t believe they are at risk but they are.
“It is less frowned upon for women in the 40s, 50s and 60s to have different partners. That is not a bad thing.
“It is about being informed and confident enough to protect your sexual health, that’s where the gap seems to be. Women need to be tested. They should know their status. That is about taking responsibility for yourself.”
Women are being diagnosed when they are much older, some in their 50s and late 60s. Martha said: “They are not necessarily old infections, they are often new infections.”
One third of people living with HIV don’t know they have it and there is an increasing number of cases now in middle-aged and older females.
Beth, a worker with the charity, who is also HIV positive and doesn’t want to be identified, said that an HIV test was too often the last resort of the medical profession, even when women presented with all the classic symptoms.
She said: “GPs aren’t testing. They may see a professional woman who is together and well dressed and so they don’t register that HIV might be an issue.
“Those are the women in danger, who end up in hospital, having lost a few stone, with doctors scratching their heads until finally someone suggests an HIV test.
“They end up so ill because they didn’t fit the mould of someone with HIV. “The point is – there is no mould. It no longer exists.
“There are all those who, in middle age, find they are back out there and don’t have enough education on HIV because there hasn’t been any, since the terrifying adverts of the 80s.”
This year is the 30th anniversary of the first cases of HIV in the UK.
In Scotland, the epidemic was initially identified among intravenous drug users and then increasingly among gay men however in the last 10 years, HIV has become primarily sexually transmitted. There are very few new transmissions between injecting drug users as the introduction of free injecting equipment and methadone dramatically reduced infection in that category.
New infections are increasingly being seen among women – particularly those who are thought to have acquired their infection abroad in countries with a high incidence of HIV, such as sub-Saharan Africa.
In the early days of HIV, Edinburgh experienced more women testing positive than other parts of the UK as the key group infected was mainly heterosexual drug users.
When they opened in 1991, Waverley Care were pioneers in recognising that women and children needed support and have been providing group and individual support since then.
The charity also want to see more campaigning to highlight that HIV is still a risk – but would always stop short of the “scaremongering” of the 80s.
Britain had the second highest rate of female infection in Europe in all age groups.
The number of women with HIV is increasing and 32 per cent of cases in Britain are now female, with at least 27,000 having the disease. Doctors at a recent International Aids Society conference in Rome said many over-50s emerging from long-term relationships had little experience of contraception.
Expert Professor Jane Anderson said: “The number of cases in the older age group are going up significantly.”
The professor, who launched an education programme to support women with HIV, added: “The phenomenon in the over-50s is because of cultural changes – 70 is the new 50 and 50 is the new 30.
“They are living full lives and experiencing partner changes. They have not had to think about condoms and contraception because they were married or in long-term relationships before.
“They don’t consider the risk and therefore we are seeing more becoming infected.”
Waverley Care are based in Edinburgh, you may contact them on 0131 558 1425 or online at http://www.waverleycare.org, or if yo live within Leicestershire or Rutland, we can provide support. We offer a completely free and confidential rapid HIV test and you’ll get the results within 60 seconds from a simple finger prick test. We use the Insti HIV test produced by BioLytical laboratories. The test is 99.96% accurate from 90 days post contact for detecting HIV 1 and 2 antibodies. Appointments are not always necessary, if you would like a test, please contact us on 0116 2559995