CHRISTMAS is coming — but partying, chem-sex, alcohol abuse, and a lack of awareness about sexually transmitted infections are just some reasons why people could end up with an unwanted festive gift.
According to statistics published earlier this year, in the 12-month period from 2015 to 2016, the incidence of syphilis rose by 20% and gonorrhoea by more than 50%. Chlamydia, one of the most common STIs, increased by 1.6% and LGV or Lymphogranuloma venereum by a massive 140%. Around 70% of all STIs notified in 2016 were among people aged under 30.
Part of the problem, experts warn, is that too many people presume an STI is something that won’t happen to them — so they get a big shock when it does:
“We see people from age 15 to over the age of 70. They generally react with shock and some people get upset,” says Daniel Quealey, clinical nurse manager in genito-urinary medicine at the STI clinic at Cork’s South Infirmary Victoria University Hospital which provides free screening, diagnosis, and treatment for STI.
“One of the most common reasons for young people not getting tested is that they underestimate the risk of infection.
“They’ve heard about STIs but they think ‘that won’t happen to me’,” he says.
This assumption tends to be made by people across all age groups. “Bar none, all of them are shocked by a positive diagnosis,” he says.
The 20-29-year-old age group makes up the largest cohort, 52% of clients attending this Cork clinic, he says, but the 40-plus category is increasing, up to 14% last year compared to just 6% in 2006.
The approach of Christmas, warns Professor Mary Horgan of the UCC School of Medicine and consultant in infectious diseases at CUH, means more partying and often more risky behaviour in the form of “potential exposure to STIs” as a result, she says, of overindulgence in alcohol or other substances.
The increased popularity of dating sites, which make it easier to find someone to have sex with, and the rise of “chem-sex” — where people take drugs to enhance their sex drive and sexual performance, but which also make them more liable to engage in unprotected sex — have contributed to the rise in the level of STIs, believes Dublin-based STI expert Dr Derek Freedman.
“We’ve ended up with a lot of ‘risk-taking’ and a consequent return of old classic sexually transmitted infections that we thought we had seen the end of — gonorrhoea, syphilis, and LGV, and a steady number of new HIV infections,” he says, adding that people who engage in chem-sex can sometimes have between six and eight sex partners in a night at a ‘party’.
While many people will attend for screening following unprotected sex, says Dr Freedman, the real risk-takers don’t appreciate that they’re at risk and consequently don’t get tested. “It is these people who are the real spreaders of infection — we know people with infections who are using dating sites. They’re risk-takers,” he says, adding that he is concerned about the rise of antibiotic-resistant STI infections.
“There are a number of infections which are becoming increasingly resistant to
antibiotics so infections that are currently treatable may become untreatable in the not-too-distant future.”
Prof Horgan believes that the lack of discussion about STIs and the fact the crucial message about protection is not the focus of regular reminders is contributing to a lack of awareness about the risk. “Nobody talks about it and people don’t discuss them.”
She believes that a sustained STI-awareness campaign across both traditional and social media is badly needed.
It’s important to remember, she points out, that essentially most STIs are preventable by wearing a condom and getting regular screening, both for yourself and those with whom you have had sexual contact.
“All STIs are either treatable or curable and services in Ireland are free and confidential and treatment is given. One of the most common STIs that we see is chlamydia, which is a bacterial infection affecting both men and women. “It’s easy to treat but often people may not have any symptoms and it’s very advisable to get screened following an unprotected sexual encounter as chlamydia can cause pelvic pain, infertility, and ectopic pregnancy. “
Genital warts is the most common viral infection she sees — caused by the HPV virus, and transmitted through close sexual encounter, it is treatable.
“Wearing condoms reduces the risk and so does having the HPV vaccine,” says Prof Horgan.
Remember, she counsels, it’s important to enjoy life in moderation. “Excess alcohol clouds a person’s judgement and they may make decisions about risky behaviour they might not otherwise have made in the clear light of day.”
- Get tested regularly if you are having unprotected sex, says clinical nurse manager Daniel Quealey. Use condoms for vaginal, oral and anal sex, he advises.
- Reduce the number of partners and overlapping partners — the more partners you have, the greater your chance of coming into contact with an infected
- Stay sober and know who you are with, advises Dr Freedman. Use a condom and give the person you have slept with breakfast — so you know who you who they are — and take their mobile phone number.
- Be aware of the potential for seduction at the office party, Dr Freedman counsels. “Be guarded, be careful, in these