Florida snowbirds take risks with HIV: study

Canadians age 50 and over who winter in Florida are mostly sexually active, but dangerously few use condoms, despite the state's growing number of seniors with HIV.

Sexually active Canadian snowbirds may be taking unnecessary risks with sexually transmitted infections, according to preliminary research from the University of Waterloo.

People aged 50 and over account for a growing percentage of HIV cases in Florida, yet few older Canadians who winter in the state take precautions against STIs, said gerontology researcher Katie Mairs.

Speaking at an HIV conference in Toronto on Tuesday, Mairs said the results of a small-scale pilot study suggest Canadian snowbirds need to be better educated about the risks of HIV.

"Somebody needs to talk to them about it. The message needs to get out there," she said. Mairs surveyed 299 snowbirds over the age of 50 who winter in Florida and found most were sexually active, and almost half had dated at least one Floridian.

Few snowbirds getting tested

But only 47 of those surveyed  — 17.7 per cent — had ever been tested for HIV, Mairs found. And HIV testing prevalence was unrelated to how often those surveyed were having sex, their number of sexual partners, condom use or whether respondents were dating in Florida versus Canada.

Less than a quarter of men and almost none of the women used condoms, the study also found. It's a relevant finding in Florida, where seniors account for 17 per cent of all HIV cases — the same as the proportion of those 65 and up among the general population. New cases among the age group are growing faster than in people under 40.

Mairs said the environment might be contributing to the less cautious attitude.

"They have less responsibility down there," she said. "They get together with their friends down there, going out more. It's that Florida lifestyle — have fun, be free."

Mairs plans to return in the winter to do a follow-up study to determine whether the risks of infection to Canadians over 50 are similar to the risks to Floridians.