For the first time in a decade, there has been a small drop in the number of diagnoses of sexually transmitted infections in England. Screening programmes appear to be having an impact on the sexual health of young people, amongst whom there have been notable declines in infection rates.
But infection rates continue to rise alarmingly in gay men and other men who have sex with men. Gonorrhoea rates went up a third in this group, which makes up 40% of men who have the infection.
Overall figures show that there were 418,598 sexually transmitted infection (STI) diagnoses made in England in 2010. This is 1% fewer than in 2009.
The Health Protection Agency, which compiled the figures, is confident that this is not because fewer people are getting tested for STIs. Slightly more tests were conducted in 2010 than in the previous year, while chlamydia testing in 15 to 24 year-olds went up by 10% to 2.2 million tests in a year.
It appears that the drop has been driven by larger declines in young people (a group which generally has very high STI rates). Amongst those aged 15 to 19, chlamydia diagnoses fell by 12%, gonorrhoea by 8% and genital warts by 9%, although genital herpes went up by 5%.
It is likely that efforts in recent years to intensify sexual health screening for young people – especially chlamydia screening – are now paying off. Ironically, however, the government is considering abandoning the national target concerning chlamydia rates, as well as the national programme of chlamydia screening in young people.
Dr Gwenda Hughes of the Health Protection Agency commented: “Although the drop is modest this is the first time we’ve seen a decrease in STIs in over 10 years so it is an important milestone… Prevention efforts, such as greater STI screening coverage and easier access to sexual health services, should be sustained and continue to focus on groups at highest risk.”
However, STI rates in gay men continue to rise. Gonorrhoea diagnoses went up by 33%, chlamydia by 22% and genital herpes by 19% in a single year. Amongst all men, 40% of gonorrhoea and 64% of syphilis is in gay men.
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