Government urged to take action on rising levels of STIs

Author: Ingrid Torjesen

Rising levels of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) mean that an STI is diagnosed every 70 seconds in England, says a report, which blames brutal funding cuts to sexual health services and a lack of strategy for tackling sexually transmitted infections. 

The State of the Nation report from the Terrence Higgins Trust and the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) calls on the government to make improving sexual health a priority following nearly half a million (447,694) cases of STIs diagnosed in England in 2018 alone.

Cases of many STIs having soared in the last decade, with gonorrhoea up 249% and syphilis up 165%, while rates of chlamydia increased by 6% in 2018 alone. Meanwhile the government has slashed spending on sexual health services by a quarter since 2014.

England now has the highest rates of syphilis since the second world war and inconsistent testing across sexual health clinics means emerging STIs such as mycoplasma genitalium (Mgen) are being undiagnosed, the report says. There’s also examples of people with symptomatic STIs being unable to access appointments. 

The burden of STIs disproportionally impacts young people, gay and bisexual men, individuals from some ethnic minority populations and people living with HIV, says the report, which calls for a greater understanding of why this is happening and how this trend can be halted. Young people account for nearly half of all new STI diagnoses (48%), with gay and men accounting for three in four (75%) of all syphilis diagnoses and some of the highest overall rates of STIs were reported in Black Caribbean and Black non-Caribbean/non-African populations.

It has been seven years since the government last published a framework on sexual health, and although there are examples of targeted interventions within sexual health working, including the utilisation of HIV prevention tools leading to a drop of 28% since 2015 and the introduction of a HPV vaccine programme for girls drastically reducing cases of genital warts, a joined-up approach to tackle STIs is now needed, the report emphasises.

Dr John McSorley, president of the BASHH, said: ‘Years of government funding cuts and disruption caused by fragmented commissioning structures have placed incredible pressures on sexual health services in this country. At a time when we are seeing significantly increased demand from the public and record levels of sexual infection, including the spread of difficult to treat antibiotic-resistant strains of disease, the decision to disinvest in this vital public health area is nonsensical.”

Jonathan McShane, chair of Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “It’s clear to see that sexual health has been neglected for too long and has not been a priority for successive governments.

“The impact of this is being felt most by groups already facing discrimination and stigma who are shouldering the heaviest burden of new STIs. Yet very little has been done to tackle these widening health inequalities.”

He added: “There needs to be a long-term approach to improving sexual health. An ambitious strategy, matched with proper funding, is the only way we can support people to have healthy and fulfilling sex lives.”