Health Protection Agency figures released today have revealed a two percent rise in the number of new sexually transmitted infections recorded in England. Young people and men who have sex with men are at highest risk, with the rate of new gonorrhoea cases up 61 percent on 2010 among the latter.
The two percent rise in the country in 2011 puts the number of new cases of sexually transmitted infections across the population at 427,000.
The HPA said the increase, which cancels out a slight decrease on the previous year, was driven by cases of gonorrhoea, syphilis and genital herpes, new cases of which were up by 25, 10 and five percent.
Among gay and bisexual men who have sex with men, new cases of gonorrhoea were up 61 percent, with syphilis up 28 percent. The number of new chlamydia infections reported had risen by 48 percent on 2010’s figures.
The HPA said that while some increase could be attributed to people responding to calls to get tested, it was not likely to account for all of the rise in new recorded infections.
Dr Gwenda Hughes, head of STI surveillance at the HPA, said: “The 2011 data are a matter of concern regarding young heterosexuals and men who have sex with men. We anticipated some increase in diagnoses due to improvements in testing in recent years, but not on the scale seen here. These data show that too many people are putting themselves at risk of STIs and serious health problems by having unsafe sex.
Dr Hughes added: “The importance of STI prevention and good sexual health becomes even clearer given emerging resistance to gonorrhoea treatment. Laboratory testing over the last five years has shown a large increase in the amount of resistance to the main drugs used to treat gonorrhoea, presenting the very real danger of untreatable gonorrhoea in the future.”
The HPA recommended the consistent use of condoms with casual and new sexual partners. Among men who have sex with men, it recommended an HIV/STI screen at least annually, and every three months if changing partners regularly, stressing that often infections appear symptomless.
Deborah Jack, Chief Executive of NAT, the National AIDS Trust, said the increase in certain STIs among gay men over the past year was “particularly worrying”.
She said: “We know gay men are the community most at risk of HIV and 25% of those with HIV don’t know they have it. Many people are unaware that having another STI can make you more susceptible to HIV transmission since STIs can cause ulceration and other harms to bodily tissue – which make it easier for HIV to be passed on. Similarly if someone with HIV also has an STI this can increase the level of virus in their body, which increases the risk of transmission to another person.
“It is really important for gay men to ensure they get an HIV test and complete sexual health check up at least once a year, and more often if they’ve put themselves at risk. Condoms are still the safest way to prevent HIV and other STIs.”
Cary James, Head of Programmes at Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “These figures are a serious concern. More men are visiting sexual health clinics than ever before but, while this can explain some of the increase in STI diagnoses, it’s not the whole story. At Terrence Higgins Trust, we are working with gay men up and down the country to find out what’s driving this increase. This will help us find the best way to bring the numbers of infections down.
“Our charity regularly monitors rates of STIs among gay and bisexual men, and reacts quickly with targeted campaigns. In the last six months, our work has specifically addressed the issues of drug resistant gonorrhoea, the outbreak in shigella infections, and the link between partner numbers and how often men should visit the clinic. Consistent condom use and regular trips to a sexual health clinic are the best way to ensure you’re keeping yourself and your partner free from infection. It’s recommended gay men go for a screening at least once a year and more often if you’re having sex with different partners.”
Matthew Hodson, of GMFA, the gay men’s health charity, said: “The shocking increases in diagnosed STIs amongst gay men and in particular the steep rise in cases of gonorrhoea and genital warts, make for alarming reading. Although part of this increase is due to larger numbers of men coming forward for testing, which is to be welcomed, there remains a concern that safer sex messages are simply not getting through.
“Let me be blunt: Sex has consequences. If you have sex with lots of men, you are much more likely to pick up an STI, including HIV. You can catch gonorrhoea from oral sex – at least 16% of gonorrhoea cases were detected in the throat, so wearing condoms for anal sex is not enough to keep you free from STIs. Having gonorrhoea will make you more vulnerable to HIV, if you have not been infected, and more likely to transmit HIV if you are HIV positive, even if you’re on treatment.
“There’s an urgent need for sexual health promotion to be adequately resourced. We have seen huge cuts in the funding for HIV prevention. In London, HIV prevention funding for gay men has been slashed from about £19m a decade ago, to about £1.4m last year. Nationally the budget for HIV prevention amounts to less than 1% of the money spent on treatment and care for people with HIV. Disinvestment in prevention efforts is short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating.”