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STIs, young people and complacency?

July 8th, 2006

Dr Petra

A news report within the British Medical Journal today expresses concern about the continuing rise in rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the UK. In 2005, GU clinics identified 110000 cases of chlamydia – a 5% increase on the past year and 223% increase on the previous decade. ¾ of those cases were in the 16-24 age group. Rates of syphilis are also rising, particularly in women – a disease that has very serious repercussions on physical and mental wellbeing.

Peter Borriello, director of the Health Protection Agency’s Centre for Infections says it is necessary to “shatter the complacency” in young people about sexual infections. The BMJ quotes him as saying “there is a tendency to see sexual infections as trivial ‘it’s just a dose of the clap for which you get an antibiotic, so what’s the big deal?’ But HIV severely disrupts the immune system and can kill, the human papilloma virus can give you cancer, chlamydia can make you sterile, and syphilis can cause brain disease. These aren’t trivial matters.”

This response (and some of the media coverage of the sexual health data) implies wilfulness amongst young people – as though they’ve been given all the information about sexual health but wantonly ignore it. Whereas we know for many young people their sex education isn’t comprehensively provided, and often young people do not know how to negotiate condom use for pleasurable sex. They are warned about not getting pregnant or catching STIs but assume this won’t happen to them. Additional pressures on young people around being in a relationship or an increasingly sexualised culture leaves them ill-prepared to negotiate safer sex.

The response also shows how inconsistent sexual messages can cause confusion. Some campaigns to destigmatise STIs did suggest they were simply treated with antibiotics – so is it fair to blame young people if they’ve absorbed that message?

Currently our sexual health services are in crisis. They’re under funded, understaffed and under resourced. Young people often don’t know how to access GU clinics, and when they do they’re met with long waits for appointments or sometimes clinics that are closed. The Family Planning Association alleges that Primary Care Trusts are “skimming off” money meant for GU services, further increasing the strain on clinics.

This problem isn’t going to go away, and without a unified approach young people’s sexual health will continue to be put at risk. Comprehensive sexual health education in schools that incorporates negotiation and assertiveness skills, alongside widely accessible and young-people friendly sexual health services, matched with empowering people to manage their own sexual health is the only way we will be able to address this issue.

You can access the full data for Sexually Transmitted Infections Figures 2005 here, and if you need support on sexual health services visit PlayingSafely for information about STIs, your nearest clinic, and ways to protect yourself from infection.

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