The number of people diagnosed with the commonest sexually transmitted infections in parts of Northern Ireland has plateaued over the course of the last few years, according to health experts. However, although there has been stabilisation in some figures, there is still a continual rise in other infections, such as syphilis and gonorrhoea.
According to the Consultant Clinical Lead in Sexual Health at the South Eastern Health Trust, Dr Fiona Carey, there are a number of indications of a stemming of the tide of STIs in the region, largely because of improvements to education, services, treatments and prevention.
The Primary Care Project
Together with Nurse Consultant Dr Carmel Kelly, Carey was massively influential in the creation of the Primary Care Project, which was funded by the Public Health Agency. In 2015 it was extended to cover Lisburn after a successful trial run in North Down, and has since been rolled out to include the remainder of the Trust area during 2016.
The unique collaboration between local GPs and the Trust’s Sexual Health Service means that nearly 54 of the 60 South Eastern Trust area GPs are now able to provide sexual health checkups to heterosexual men and women who are over the age of 16. The service offers asymptomatic screenings for conditions such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea, HIV and syphilis. Carey has noted that there is no more efficient and useful service than being able to use your own GP, for an accessible and speedy sexual health test.
Resources in the Trust have been freed up because of the award winning project. This is allowing GPs to be able to diagnose and treat generally healthy patients, while the more complicated and serious cases can be handled by the secondary care service staff in the Bangor, Downpatrick and Lisburn genitourinary medicine clinics of the Trust.
GPs all over Lisburn are experiencing about 400 new STI cases per year, according to Carey, whose background is in General Practice, while around 800 cases are seen at the health centre’s GUM clinic, with positive diagnoses not always the result. The latest figures released by the Trust indicate that two STIs most common in the local area are genital warts and chlamydia, although in both instances figures have started to plateau over the course of the last few years.
Over 125 cases of chlamydia were diagnosed last year by primary and secondary care Lisburn services, with 70 instances of genital warts seen by the local GUM clinic, figures similar to that recorded in the preceding year. Particular strains of the human papilloma virus are responsible for genital warts, with certain strains of the virus having also been previously linked to a variety of cancers, such as cervical cancer. However, with homosexual and bisexual men under the age of 45, and girls from 12 years old now being offered a vaccination program, Dr Carey is convinced that the number of genital warts cases will see a significant drop over the course of the next decade.
With the release of the new STI figures, Carey noted that, these days, individuals tend to be more aware of their sexual health, and that encouraging signs that the tide of such infections is beginning to be stemmed are being seen within the heterosexual community – though a number of patients continue to become infected.
Carey added that there is a disproportionate burden on those living in socioeconomically deprived areas, with an enormous increase in cases of gonorrhoea over the last few years (although that may be partly attributable to a much more sensitive new test). That rise is also starting to stabilise. Carey points out that the key message is that infections such as genital warts and chlamydia are starting to level off, but there remains a major problem with the likes of gonorrhoea and syphilis, especially among gay and bisexual men.
STIs continue to be more prevalent with young people, especially young men between the ages of 20 and 24, and girls between the ages of fifteen to nineteen. Carey stresses that the safe sex message applies to older people too, especially given the growing tendency of people in their 50s and 60s to find new partners following divorce. Anyone concerned about STIs in the UK can find further information, and order a home screening kit, quickly and securely through the Online Clinic.