Published by BBC NEWS - 20th January 2024
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A red condomImage source, Getty Images

Sexual health services in England are at breaking point, according to local councils who are responsible for running the clinics.

They say that soaring rates of infections are threatening to overwhelm services and the government needs to provide extra funding.

Since 2017, more than two-thirds of council areas saw infection climb.

The Department of Health said more than £3.5 billion has been allocated to local public health services this year.

Data gathered by the government’s Office for Health Improvement and Disparities shows that in almost every council area in England, diagnosis rates of gonorrhoea have increased in recent years.

The Local Government Association (LGA) – representing the councils that provide sexual health clinics – is warning that demand is soaring and services are struggling to keep up.

It is calling on the government to provide extra funding, as well as to publish a long-term plan to help prevent and treat sexually transmitted infections.

Nearly three-quarters of councils have seen a rise in rates of syphilis cases, and chlamydia infections are up in more than a third of areas.

Many of the new cases are younger people, and involve gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men, but rates have also increased in heterosexual people.

Experts believe there has been a rebound effect after the restrictions connected to Covid, but infections were rising well before the pandemic hit.

There has also been a greater effort to test more people and improve access to services which may have led to more cases being identified.

Councillor David Fothergill, chairman of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board, says the statistics show that local sexual health services are grappling with unprecedented increases in demand.

“Councils have been working hard to encourage more people to access sexual health services and get tested more regularly to help improve detection rates and catch infections early.

“Investment in sexual health services helps to prevent longer-term illness and unwanted pregnancies, reducing pressure on our NHS and improving the health of people across our communities.”

A report by the UK Health Security Agency last year revealed that in 2022 gonorrhoea cases were at their highest level since records began in 1918 – and syphilis cases were the highest since 1948.

Dr Claire Dewsnap, president of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV, says the quality and accessibility of services is under threat.

“Without sufficient investment, sexual health service users will face severe challenges in their ability to access expert, timely care.

“This data not only demonstrates the deeply concerning trajectory of STI [sexually transmitted infection] growth, but also the need for a robust national strategy, backed up by adequate funding.

“As demand for care increases, without imminent action, we compromise our ability to safeguard the sexual health of our nation.” 

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said that more than £3.5 billion has been allocated to local authorities in England this year “to fund public health services, including sexual health services, and this funding will increase in each of the next three years.

“We continue to work closely with the UK Health Security Agency, local authorities and NHS England to manage pressures on sexual reproductive health services and improve access to routine services.”

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