Elderly men living near Finland’s eastern border appear to give in to the temptation to engage in sex tourism across the border in Russia. However the jaunts don’t always have a happy ending.
The problem affects male seniors living in South Karelia in particular – last year the average age of men diagnosed with HIV infections was over 60. In 2016, all of the HIV infections reported in South Karelia were among men over the age of 70, according to the South Karelia Social and Health Care District.
Additionally, a significant proportion of the infections were traced to Russia, NGOs say.
“What is most worrying is that the infections are often discovered too late. It may not have presented any symptoms for several years,” said Pia Västinsalo, of Helsinki NGO Hivpoint.
HIVpoint recently caused a social media stir among some UK users when it published sex education material depicting interracial and gay couples having sex.
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Västinsalo said that HIV infections should be diagnosed as early as possible to ensure that they can be effectively treated and to prevent spreading the infection to other sex partners.
HIV infections generally present no symptoms for long periods and as a result many people do not get tested. Roughly half of people who are infected experience flu-like symptoms after a few weeks, but they disappear in two weeks or so, another reason why few will suspect that they have been infected.
Symptoms appear only when the body’s defence mechanism begins to weaken – a process that may take up to 10 years.
“Of the infections [determined to have come] from Russia, about 80 percent have been diagnosed only when the body’s defences have significantly weakened,” the healthcare advisor said.
Condoms, tests, lubricants at the border
In a bid to rein in HIV infections at the border, the Finnish Red Cross SPR and Hivpoint have launched a joint campaign at crossing points along the eastern frontier.
The awareness blitz will provide free instant HIV tests at the Imatra border station from 8 – 10 June, at the Vartius crossing in Kuhmo from 8 – 10 June and at the Niirala station in Tohmajärvi from 9 – 10 June.
In addition to the spot tests, tourists heading into Russia will also be provided with condoms, lubricants and pamphlets with information about safe sex.
“The results will be provided on the spot and can be anonymous,” Västinsalo commented.
The tests are also available at SPR and HIV locations across the country as well as at health centres.
Embarrassment inhibits testing
The NGOs noted that too many people do not get tested for HIV because they are paralysed by shame or fear. In a small town, a health centre nurse may be a friend or acquaintance, so people may be reluctant to get tested locally.
Health care professionals may also neglect to suggest that elderly male patients get tested because they are embarrassed to suggest it or are afraid that the customer will become angry.
Individuals who suspect they may have contracted an HIV infection can turn to emergency post-exposure treatment soon after unprotected sex. The treatment should begin 72 hours after the sexual encounter and lasts one month.
“It is not 100 percent reliable, but it is very effective,” Västinsalo remarked.
The emergency treatment as well as HIV medication is free for people diagnosed as HIV-positive.