Gonorrhoea and syphilis STI diagnoses surge among gay and bi men in England

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Positive tests for sexually transmitted infections (STI) are reaching record-breaking numbers in England, according to the latest government figures.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKSHA) revealed on Tuesday (6 June) that STIs have risen by 24 per cent over the past year in England, with an average of more than 1,000 diagnoses being reported every day.

The figures show that at least 392,453 infections were reported in 2022, including more than 82,500 cases of gonorrhoea – up by more than 50 per cent on the previous year and the highest number of diagnoses in any single year since records began in 1918.

There were 8,692 cases of syphilis, the largest annual number since just after the Second World War.

Last year also saw increases in chlamydia (up 24 per cent).

The rise particularly affected gay men, and bisexual men who have sex with men, with rates of gonorrhoea increasing by 41 per cent, while syphilis saw a 13 per cent rise.

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LGBTQ+ men who have sex with men are already a priority group for sexual-health considerations due to the heightened risk of infection.

Urging people to practice safe, protected sex, UKHSA consultant epidemiologist Dr Hamish Mohammed noted that the figures were particularly prominent in young people.

“STIs aren’t just an inconvenience, they can have a major impact on your health and that of any sexual partners,” he said.

“Condoms are the best defence, but if you didn’t use one the last time you had sex with a new or casual partner, get tested to detect any potential infections early.”

A set of NHS ambulance vehicles parked near a local clinic.
STI screenings have risen significantly over the past year. (Getty)

UKHSA also asked those who have recently had sex without a condom with one or multiple partners to seek regular tests, which are free, through one of the several local sexual health clinics or medical centres.

Consultations at sexual health clinics also increased last year, by around eight per cent compared with 2021 figures. These resulted in a 26 per cent increase in the likelihood of a patient aged between 15 and 24 returning a positive test.

In total, there were close to 2.2 million screenings across 2022, compared with 1,936,455 in 2021.

Responding to the report, Terrence Higgins Trust chief executive Richard Angell criticised the government’s approach to sexual health, saying it is a “worrying testament” to the lack of planning.

“We’ve seen cuts where we need to see investment,” he said. “This has reduced our sexual-health services to a minimal disease-management process. This cannot continue.

“If this were any other set of health conditions, there would be outcry and we’d see rapid action.

“Testing rates remain lower than pre-COVID, but the number of STIs being diagnosed are exceeding the high levels reported before the pandemic. Two years of social distancing resulted in a small drop in transmission rates but numbers are surging again because sexual-health services and public-health budgets have been cut to the bone.”

Angell said that the fragility of the sexual-health services in England was “laid bare” during the Mpox outbreak last year, which he said left clinics “unable to provide HIV and STI testing.”

He added: “The government urgently needs to set out what ‘good’ looks like for sexual health.

“We’ve been waiting for four years for the government’s sexual and reproductive health action plan and this latest data must come as a wake-up call to inspire action.”

Gay and bisexual men urged to have regular screenings

UKHSA urged gay men and bisexual men who have sex with men to test every three months if they are having unprotected sex, due to the higher risk of HIV for the group.

A report in April by the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, in New York, noted that trans men are particularly susceptible to contracting HIV compared with their cisgender counterparts.

The study recorded data from 577 trans men seeking HIV care between 2009 and 2010, finding that 2.8 per cent returned a positive test compared with the 0.41 per cent positivity rate in cis men.

UK charity Aidsmap used the report as an example of how trans men are often left out of HIV studies, which could lead to increased risk.

Additionally, systemic factors, including discrimination, access to care, and mental-health factors, can lead to an increased prevalence.

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