Now Reading
Syphilis soars to highest level in 70 years, gay and bi men top league table

Syphilis soars to highest level in 70 years, gay and bi men top league table

  • STIs are soaring as the government spends less on testing.
Blood test.

Clinics are diagnosing a new STI ever 70 seconds in England with cases soaring among gay and bi men.

Sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) and the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) say syphilis is now at its highest level since World War Two.

Gay and bisexual men are particularly impacted by STIs. They account for 75% of all new cases of syphilis in 2018.

At the same time, the government has slashed spending on sexual health services by a quarter since 2014.

THT and BASHH say their State of the Nation report, released today, should be a wake-up call for the government.

Soaring STIs and hidden infections

The report says there were 447,694 cases of STIs diagnosed in England in 2018 alone.

Many STIs having soared in the last decade. In particular gonorrhoea is up 249% and syphilis up 165%. Meanwhile rates of chlamydia increased by 6% in 2018 alone.

Even if you do get one of the limited number of clinic appointments to get tested and come out clear, you may still have an STI.

With tight resources, sexual health clinics are not routinely testing for emerging STIs, such as Mgen.

Mgen (or mycoplasma genitalium) is an STI which infects the genital and urinary tracts of men and women. It sometimes clears itself and has no symptoms.

But in other cases it can cause pain and discharge from the penis or vagina and vaginal bleeding. Doctors can treat it with antibiotics but, because of drug resistance, it may take several rounds of treatment to clear.

Meanwhile THT and BASHH also says some people with STI symptoms can’t get appointments to get tested and treated.

However, the report also points to successes. For example, the government funded an HPV vaccine programme for girls and later extended it to boys. And the result was a dramatic fall in new cases of genital warts.

Who is most at risk of STIs?

Young people account for 48% of all new STI diagnoses. Meanwhile gay and bisexual men accounting for three in four (75%) of all syphilis diagnoses.

And some of the highest overall rates of STIs are among Black Caribbean and Black non-Caribbean and non-African people. Moreover, people already living with HIV are at greater risk.

The rise in STIs is despite the fact that new HIV cases have plummeted, according to research published in January.

In the case of HIV, rates of new infections have fallen by 71% among gay and bi men.

That’s partly because more HIV positive people are on treatment – and once on effective treatment the virus falls to ‘undetectable’ levels and they can’t pass it on. Campaigners call this ‘undetectable = untransmittable’.

At the same time, more gay and bi men than ever are taking PrEP, a drug that is very effective at stopping you getting HIV.

Government must take action 

Jonathan McShane, chair of Terrence Higgins Trust, said: ‘This report shows that the nation’s sexual health is not in good shape. This must be a wake up call to the government to take action.’

While the NHS provides sexual health clinics, it is local government rather than national government that pays the bill.

And with the government giving less and less money to local authorities, they have cut back.

Dr John McSorley, President of the BASHH, said: ‘Years of government funding cuts and disruption caused by fragmented commissioning structures have placed incredible pressures on sexual health services in this country.’

Meanwhile, THT and BASHH says the country also lacks a clear national strategy on STIs.

McShane added: ‘This has resulted in the rates of some STIs spiralling and services struggling to cope with demand.

‘There needs to be a long-term approach to improving sexual health. An ambitious strategy, matched with proper funding, is the only way we can support people to have healthy and fulfilling sex lives.’