An “in-your-face” public health campaign using billboards and bus shelter advertising is needed to combat the ongoing rise in sexually transmitted infections (STIs), according to a specialist in sexual health.
Dating apps should also be forced to carry information about safe sex, said Dr Derek Freedman, a consultant in genitourinary medicine: “Look at dating apps and tell me where the information is about safe sex."
Latest figures from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) show that more than 500 additional cases of chlamydia were notified to health authorities for the first 15 weeks of 2019, compared to the same period last year, up from 2010 to 2521.
The number of gonorrhoea cases rose from 584 over the same 15-week period in 2018 to 830 this year - a 42% increase. Syphilis notifications increased from 133 to 215.
HPSC statistics show that the highest incidence of STIs is among 20-24-year-olds, with higher infection rates among men.
Dr Freedman said there has been a “huge jump” in STIs since 2016: “What we are seeing is not only a high representation of men having sex with men (MSM) but also significant penetration in the general population."
He questioned the efficacy of public health messaging in relation to safe sex saying: “Look at the figures, what effect have they had?"
Dr Freedman said he sees two groups of people at his clinic in Ranelagh: those anxious that they have caught an STI and those who “don’t care that they have an infection”.
“I give them the treatment and they never come back for a test to see if they are cured,” he said.
He said there is a “total lack of appreciation” among young people that there are “commonly no signs or symptoms” of STIs “and the only way they can tell is by being tested”.
Dr Derval Igoe, a specialist in public health medicine with the HPSC, said consistent condom use and undergoing testing for STIs when changing partners were key to preventing the spread of STIs.
She said much work has been done in promoting the use of condoms and advising on safe sex, while also encouraging young people to avail of free testing for STIs.
Moreover, a multidisciplinary outbreak response group was set up in 2016 to tackle the increase in STIs in MSM, and implementation of its action plan is being monitored
Dr Freedman said offering free screening for STIs has had “no impact”; that services are “not adequate for the number of people attending”; and that clinics are “overrun”.
He said in-your-face public health messaging is needed, as occurred in Sweden in the late 1960s amid an outbreak of gonorrhoea, when “posters, banners and bus shelters were used”.
Information about STI clinics and the National Condom Distribution Service (NCDS) is available on sexualwellbeing.ie