Malta’s rate of new HIV cases among people over 50 is in the top four for European countries, according to research that warns the epidemic could be taking a new direction.

A study published in The Lancet HIV shows that while the rate of newly reported HIV cases in Europe remained steady among younger people between 2004 and 2015, it grew by two per cent each year in older people.

The rate of diagnosis for older people increased in 16 European countries, including Britain and Germany. By 2015, it was found that HIV rates in those over 50 were highest in Estonia, Latvia, Malta and Portugal, where more than six new HIV cases were being diagnosed per 100,000 in that age category.

With about 30,000 newly diagnosed HIV cases reported each year over the last decade, the epidemic remains a significant public health problem in the 31 countries of the European Union and European Economic Area.

The new study from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control shows that those aged 50 or older are more likely to be diagnosed late than younger adults. They were also more likely to have contracted HIV via heterosexual sex.

According to Lara Tavoschi, who led the research, the findings suggest a new direction in which the HIV epidemic is evolving. This could be the result of older people’s poor awareness of HIV and how it is transmitted.

The researchers note that the results point to the compelling need to deliver more targeted testing for the adult population, such as by increasing awareness among healthcare workers.

They conclude that this analysis underscores that the coverage and uptake of HIV testing “needs to be scaled up significantly and not only among older adults”.

The study analysed new HIV cases between 2004 and 2015 in EU Member States and also Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. It found that more than 54,100 people over the age of 50 had been diagnosed with HIV, translating into 2.6 per 100,000.

The rate of newly reported cases increased by two per cent each year among older adults.

By 2015, around one in six newly diagnosed HIV cases in Europe were for people over 50.