Tuesday, December 12, 2006

HIV Over 50: Stigma leading to insufficiency of prevention- Jessica B. Castronovo

Over the past 25 years, HIV/AIDS has been affecting many aspects of society at astonishing rates. Public health practitioners (doctors, policy makers, educators, etc) in all spheres of influence have been working hard to put together comprehensive and effectual prevention efforts targeting those at risk for HIV/AIDS infection. Unfortunately these care providers have focused on small groups that are considered at risk due to their lifestyle (IV drug users, men who have sex with men etc). Many of these efforts have been considered successful. In their haste to address this very important issue of HIV/AIDS prevention, stigma has prevented practitioners from even identifying people over the age of fifty as a group at risk.

Older adults are living in a society where they are stigmatized because of their age. It is thought by much of society, and often themselves, that older adults are not vital, pleasure seeking individuals. As a result, older adults are not viewed as at risk for a HIV/AIDS, which is often considered one of the young and risk courting. The stigma of being older, combined with the stigma of the behaviors which put one at risk for HIV/AIDS infection are placing older adults at great and unnecessary risk of infection. Further more, Public Health has failed older adults in the realm of HIV/AIDS prevention. In many of the spheres that impact an individual’s life, where the various types of Public Health practitioners can intervene, there is scarce education, acceptance and care. In this paper I will outline and explore the failures of Public Health utilizing the Social Ecological Model, which draws the spheres of influence in a person’s life, going from the broad world of state and federal policy down to the individual interactions a person has. All spheres are places in which Public Health can intervene with prevention efforts-and often it is done, with other populations-but older adults are failed in multiple spheres.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2003a) estimate that the number of adults over the age of 55 living with HIV/AIDS in the United States increased by at least 107% from 1998-2002. This is a larger increase then any other adult age group. Between 10% and as high as 18% of people living with HIV/AIDS are over the age of fifty and 25% of these cases are in persons over the age of 60 (Feldman, 1994). It can also be assumed that there is actually a higher rate of HIV/AIDS in the older adult population then the statistics reflect, but they have not been tested. Elderly have been found to be less likely to be tested the any other group (Doup, 1994; Feldman, 1994; Jones, 1999). In contrast, the rate of infection of children age 5 and younger is less then 1% of the AIDS cases (CDC, 1998). The level of perception of risk does not coincide with these statistics on infection, the CDC Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 2000 Survey date reveal that among adult respondents age 55-64, 81% reported no risk for HIV and 15.1% reported a low chance of getting HIV (CDC, 2003a).

From the data, it is clear that HIV/AIDS infection is a real issue among older adults and intern the responsibility of Public Health practitioners.

Societal Sphere of Failure
Social Structure, Policy and Systems are the broadest and largest level of influence when discussing the prevention of a disease from a public health standpoint. These influences may have been local, state or federal policies regulating prevention and care efforts. Overall very little has been done at the societal level to dispel society’s ageist views about older adults and their risk of HIV/AIDS.

When one thinks of HIV prevention campaigns, the most popular methods address the need to use condoms or clean needles. What is also apparent in these campaigns is a younger population is being targeted. There is usually flashy writing and young innocent or confused, attractive looking young people making safer sex look enticing. Older adults have been left out of most HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns, even the brochure driven ones. Only 14 states in the United States have print information about HIV/AIDS geared specifically towards older adults (Apreal, et al, 2004). Nancy Oreal, et al also call into question the quality of the printed prevention efforts reaching the intended audience. The availability does not appear widespread or in multiple languages. The exclusive use of print material also leaves out the group of older adults who are illiterate. With the factor of illiteracy comes increased chance of poverty, substance abuse and depression-all increased risk factors for HIV/AIDS.

The lack of literature available has been found to be lacking in fundamental ways. The focus of the literature geared towards older adults was general education about how they as a group are at a higher risk, often in the form of a list of factoids. States did include in their literature aimed at older adults myths and stereotypes around HIV/AIDS, basic facts about HIV/AIDS and basic STD prevention strategies (i.e. Condom use). There was no mention of physiological aging factors, which have been linked to decreased immune systems; vaginal wall thinning and less vaginal lubrication may increase the risk of HIV in older sexually active women (Zablotsky, 1998). The mere fact that the ads and pamphlets do not generally include older adults perpetuates the normative myths surrounding older adults and their risk for HIV. Society in general continues to believe that older adults do not engage in behaviors that put them at risk, which is not true. “An increasingly high percentage of newly identified AIDS cases in older adults are due to HIV transmission through risky sexual behaviors (Maes & Louis, 2003).” Especially male-to-male sexual contact (Strombeck &Levy, 1998). “Despite the dominant stereotypes of an ‘asexual older person’, studies on sexual activity among older adults showed that a high percentage (81.5%) of subjects over age 50 were involved in one or more sexual relationships (Inelmen, et al, 2005).”

Studies have been done to document the obvious lack of impact Public Health prevention campaigns have had on the older adult community. The majority of people over the age of 50 with AIDS reported that they had not received very much information on prevention. When they did report receiving information about HIV/AIDS, it was through the mass media. In a focus group in New York City, older adults over the age of 50 relayed that they did not perceive HIV/AIDS prevention messages as targeted towards them. (Klein, et al, 2001). According to researchers Schable et al, “…older women with heterosexually acquired HIV are less likely to have used a condom before their HIV diagnosis and less likely to have been tested for HIV.” when compared with older groups of women. This is a living example of the need for a condom use message not reaching an at risk population, whether it be not identifying with the issues of risk or not even getting the message of the importance of condom use. Older adults were raised to use condoms as birth control, making post-menopause pregnancy no longer a concern, and an issue that getting addressed. They are applying this condoms use message to their children and grandchildren, not themselves.

Institutional Sphere of Failure
The medical community is a strong partner when it comes to addressing prevention and treatment of diseases. It is often relied upon to be a place of formal and informal rules and regulations, which are thought to be safety nets to teach people about disease and the prevention or treatment of. The main line of defense in the medical community is thought to be the Primary Care Physician (PCP). In the area of HIV/AIDS education, prevention and treatment the PCP has fallen dangerously short.

At the heart of this failure is the issue that PCP’s buy into the ageist myths of older age equaling celibacy and sobriety (Engle, 1998). It remains easy for the PCP to ignore HIV/AIDS as an issue because elements of aging mimic symptoms of HIV/AIDS. Common symptoms of HIV/AIDS can be attributed to aging are memory loss, loss of muscle tone and fatigue. Some studies show that “…over 90% of those 50 years and older have never had an HIV test (Maes & Louis, 2003).”

The result of ageist views of many PCP’s is a “don’t ask don’t tell” standard of care around the subject of behaviors that would put an older adult at risk for HIV/AIDS. This can lead to serious consequences. As stated previously in this paper, the number of adults over the age of 55 living with HIV/AIDS increased by 107% from 1998-2002. This is the largest increase of all adult age groups (CDC, 2003a).

It is not to say that PCP’s do not discuss sexuality at all with their patients. There has been a large increase in the use of and acceptance of sexual enhancement drugs. The introduction of this class of drugs has increased the sexual potency of men and frequency of sexual intercourse. This increase in prescribing appears to have correlated with “an increasingly high percentage of newly identifies AIDS cases in older adults…due to HIV transmission through risky sexual behaviors (Maes & Louis, 2003)”. When paired with the hands off approach PCP’s have had with truly addressing older adult sexuality it can be dangerous. In addition to this there does not appear to be a protocol that is followed for education about HIV/AIDS with the prescribing of sexual potency medications.

In regards to the Societal sphere’s potential interaction with the PCP’s, there is no current standard public health outreach to the medical community that serves to enhance awareness of older adults as an at risk population for HIV/AIDS. As an example, among PCP’s, there is no push to have the doctors ask a series of risk factor questions during the patient’s medical visit. In contrast, adolescents and young adults are asked standard questions about their sexual behavior and drug use-risk factors that are significant in both young and old.

Individual Sphere Failure
The most pointed and specific level of influence is the Individual. This is where prevention efforts incorporate health behavior theory in order for people to change their behaviors. There have been very few interventions that have been implemented to target the older adult and their risk of HIV/AIDS. Among efforts that have been made to target older adults all are lacking in key elements that have made prevention efforts with other groups viable. Studies have shown that HIV/AIDS prevention efforts that teach sexual negotiation skills and increase availability of condoms improve self-efficacy, which is a key element to changing behavior. If an individual believes in a behavior or intervention and feel they can do it then they are more likely to follow through with that healthier behavior.

The theory of reasoned action is a particularly useful and informative way to identify effective intervention programs and why. In a study done by Jemmott & Jemmott surveying young black women, those who registered more favorable attitudes toward condoms and those who perceived subjective norms more supportive of condom use reported firmer intentions to use condoms in the next three months. Key behavioral beliefs are related to attitudes centered on the adverse effects of condom use on sexual enjoyment. Key normative influences were respondents' sexual partners and mothers. However, women's own attitudes were a stronger determinant of intentions to use condoms than were their perceptions of normative influences, particularly among women with above average AIDS knowledge. These results suggest that the theory of reasoned action provides a potentially useful conceptual framework for interventions to change a key AIDS risk behavior among women and can be expanded to other groups who have been stigmatized and disempowered (such as older adults).

In terms of research to establish effective prevention methods, very little HIV has explored the channels and methods of communication that are more frequently used by, acceptable to, or effective with older people. The biological, psychological and social issues of people over the age of 50 need to be taken into account when developing a prevention program.

Current prevention strategies for older adults are more centered around providing information (safer sex, the etiology of HIV and modes of transmission). An example of this method is the Senior HIV Intervention Project (SHIP) originally located in the Dade, Boward and Palm Beach Counties of Florida. For unclear reasons the program has been recently discontinued in Palm Beach County. It appears that this program was begun in response to a large epidemic of HIV among elders in these elder heavy counties. This is a program which trains older adult peer educators to present educational and safer sex seminars at retirement communities, focusing on the etiology of HIV and modes of transmission and the importance of knowing one’s HIV status by testing. Trained AIDS educators meet with health care professionals and aging service workers to help them understand the risks posed to older adults by HIV. This is done in small group meetings (Agate, et al, 2003). While a step in the right direction, this program, along with others that are similar in Chicago, IL and Baltimore, MD, is missing a key element that would effect change on the individual level. While basic education is important, it can be shown again and again in public health that simply knowing about something does not guarantee that an individual will translate it into their day to day. There is no emphasis on the concrete issues that put individuals at risk such as condom availibiity and sexual negotiation skills. Attacking HIV/AIDS prevention with emphasis on self-efficacy with development of personal attitudes towards condoms, discussing their partner’s status and making decisions based upon the information provided. Simply teaching how to put a condom on and ask a partner what their sexual history is paired well with the education that SHIP and other programs like it provide.

It does not appear that much research has been done on whether the intervention of SHIP has made a real difference in people’s lives. What has been measured after exposure to SHIP and other programs like it are the participant’s level of knowledge about HIV/AIDS. There is no discussion about attitudes towards prevention techniques such as using the condom they are told will prevent HIV and negotiating the use of this condom. There was also no data available on rates of infection after exposure to the program.

In conclusion, HIV/AIDS prevention has failed older adults in many spheres of influence in their lives. On a Systematic level prevention efforts are obviously directed towards the young and perceived risky groups of young adults, IV drug users and men who have sex with men. On the Organizational level, it is the medical community, captained by PCP’s where HIV/AIDS is rarely discussed with older adults and sexual potency medications are prescribed with little safer sex discussion. In the individual sphere HIV/AIDS prevention methods are missing a largely important part of prevention efforts-giving individuals life skills to deal with situations where they could be put at greater risk for HIV exposure. It is well documented in research done on prevention programs and programs aimed at changing people’s behavior that the most important determinant of the impact of a prevention effort is change in important attitudes translated into people’s true actions. There does not appear to be sufficient data to determine if the small prevention efforts have made a true impact, but with their emphasis on education and exclusion of theoretically supported necessary elements such as sexual negotiation and condom availability, they are failing older adults. Public Health must take responsibility for the increase in the HIV infection rate of older adults that is known and for the fact that the data in general on this issue is paltry and then change accordingly.


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Anonymous Stephanie said...

Jess I think this is one of the most interesting posts I've read. It's completely changed the way I think about AIDS prevention campaigns and public health. Thank you

7:44 AM  

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