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Number of women attending sexual health clinics falls

The number of women attending sexual health clinics has plummeted, with emigration as well as the availability of emergency contraception over the counter a factor in the reduction.

Figures from the Dublin Well Woman Centre released yesterday showed that in 2011, about 8,000 prescriptions for routine contraception were issued from its three clinics, with the numbers falling in most age categories.

The fall-off in emergency contraception is even more dramatic — an 80% fall between last year’s figure and that of 2010 was down mainly to laws introduced in Feb 2011 allowing pharmacists to sell emergency contraception over the counter.

Well Woman chief executive Alison Begas and medical director Dr Shirley McQuade, said another lesser reason for the drop in the number of women attending the clinics was a rise in the use of long-acting contraceptive devices which can prevent pregnancy for between three and 10 years.

Ms Begas said: "When the recession first bit in 2008, emigration was largely a male phenomenon, but since 2010, according to the CSO figures, it has really been spiking with young women.

"There is also an increase in the number of women using longer-lasting contraception."

The average age of a woman having a first child in Ireland is now 31 and Dr McQuade said many young women in their 20s — the age group which has seen the largest fall in numbers attending the clinics — had no intention of having a baby until they were in their 30s.

The availability of over- the-counter contraception in pharmacies has also contributed to the fall in numbers attending the clinics, but Ms Begas said: "It may still be better for these women to discuss their family planning needs with a family doctor or GP."

She said a new emergency contraceptive called ellaOne — which can be taken within five days of unprotected sexual intercourse and which more than halves the chances of pregnancy — is now available from GPs.

A recent study found that 12% of young women were now opting for longer-term forms of contraception.

The clinics also screen for sexually transmitted infections.

Last year there were 187 positive tests for chlamydia — a slight fall on the previous year — with 3,747 tests proving negative.

However, Dr McQuade said figures from this year were likely to show an increase in gonorrhoea, as a new testing process had an enhanced the detection rate.