Sexual health services in the UK are ‘at breaking point’ after increase in STIs

Gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men remain one of the groups with high numbers of STI cases in the UK, as per the LGBT Foundation. (Nestea06/Getty)

An increase in sexually transmitted infections in the UK is putting pressure on sexual health services. 

The Local Government Association (LGA) has revealed that more than 75% of council areas have seen an uptick in cases of gonorrhoea and syphilis since 2017. The organisation is now warning that sexual health services in the nation are “at breaking point”. 

Figures published by the Office of Health Disparities show that 97% of council areas have seen an increase in cases of gonorrhoea, with 10 local authorities seeing rates triple. 

The highest rate of cases was in Lambeth, London, with 1,221 cases per 100,000 people. The top ten areas for rates of infection were all inner boroughs of London.

Meanwhile, 71% of areas have seen an increase in syphilis cases, the largest increases of cases being in Middlesborough, the Isle of Wight, Darlington and Redcar & Cleveland.

There have also been increases in cases of chlamydia in 36% of local authority areas. 

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As per the LGBT Foundation, gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men remain one of the groups with high numbers of STI cases in the UK.

The demand for sexual health services in the UK is growing, with almost 4.5 million consultations being carried out in 2022 – an increase of a third since 2013, as per the LGA. In 2022, 2.2 million diagnostic tests were being carried out, which is a 13 per cent increase from the year before.

The LGA discovered that between 2015 and 2024, the public health grant received by local councils was reduced by £880 million, and has called on the government to urgently publish 2024/25 public health grant allocations for councils which provide further funding to meet the demand.

They also want the government to publish a new 10 Year Sexual and Reproductive Health Strategy to help prevent and treat infections in the long term.

Cllr David Fothergill, Chairman of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board said: “These statistics show that local sexual health services are grappling with unprecedented increases in demand. The Government needs to ensure sexual health funding is increased to levels which matches these stark increases.

“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.”

Often, STIs have no symptoms. If left untreated, chlamydia can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in people with a uterus, a serious illness which causes pain in the lower abdomen and a fever. PID can also cause scarring in the fallopian tubes, difficulty conceiving, and increases the risk of ectopic pregnancy.

For those with penises, chlamydia can cause infections in the urethra (the tube through which urine and semen pass through) and can also cause sore, swollen testicles.

If left untreated, gonorrhoea can cause infection in the testicles, and infertility. It can also cause PID, and can also increase the risk of HIV transmission in people of any gender.

Symptoms of syphilis are sores or ulcers around the mouth, anus, penis or vagina which are usually painless and don’t bleed. Other signs include flu-like symptoms, and rashes, swollen glands, wart-like lumps on the body, hair loss, headaches, tiredness and muscle, joint and bone pain in the later stages.

This can come and go over the years if untreated and can lead to permanent problems like nerve damage and damage to large vessels near the heart. A pregnant person with syphilis can also pass it on to their foetus, causing a severe, life-threatening infection.

The UK Health Security Agency advises that anyone sexually active should get tested for STIs, including an HIV test, every time they have sex with a new partner, or if they think they could have been exposed to an STI. 

Additionally, anyone sexually active should have an STI screen, including an HIV test, every year. The best way to prevent STIs is to use a condom. 

You can find STI testing and treatment services in the UK here, and you can search for free condom services in England here.

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