Last week we published our Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) Spotlight report for London. This annual report looks at the epidemiology of STIs in London residents, breaking down data by infections, age, gender, ethnicity and local authority of residence. Looking at data in this level of detail allows healthcare professionals to see which groups are at increased risk of experiencing poor sexual health, identify emerging trends and establish public health interventions to help reduce the burden of poor sexual health.
London has, for some time now, been the region of England with the highest number of STIs and poor sexual health is a major public health problem in our city. In 2015 there were nearly 120,000 new STIs diagnosed in London residents; and looking into those affected, 36% of these new STIs were in young Londoners aged between 15 and 24. The average age for an STI in London residents last year was 24 for women and 29 for men.
Young people are one of the groups at increased risk of experiencing poor sexual health, along with men who have sex with men (MSM) and black ethnic minorities. Young people are at higher risk because they often have more sexual partners and are less likely to use protection. Worryingly, these factors mean this group is both at increased risk of contracting STIs and becoming re-infected. Becoming re-infected with STIs is worrying; it is a marker of an individual continuing to put themselves and others at unnecessary risk of STIs, despite knowing the dangers.
People can reduce the chance of becoming infected with STIs through consistent and correct use of condoms; if you are having unprotected sex with new of casual partners then regular sexual health testing is crucial.
Our report last week coincided with the Family Planning Association’s (FPA) Sexual Health Week (12-18 September), which this year centered on raising awareness of STIs, encouraging sexual health testing and emphasising the importance of safe sex practices. To promote the annual awareness week FPA surveyed over 2,000 people to find out what they know and think about safe sex and STI testing; interestingly one cohort within this was young people (aged 16 to 24 years old).
FPA's findings gave a great insight into the attitudes of young people; for example 26% said they had not been for a sexual health test because they were too embarrassed or were embarrassed about the possibility of other people finding out. One fifth reported not going for a check-up as they were too scared to find out the result. Feeling worried or embarrassed is not uncommon, especially among younger age groups, however- healthcare professionals are receptive and highly trained to have non-judgemental and open conversations with patients about a range of personal problems.
In London we have excellent, confidential, open access sexual health services which provide free contraception and STI testing and treatment. These services also offer notification for the sexual partners of those diagnosed with an STI, which may be another concern for people diagnosed with an STI. People can visit any sexual health centre they choose and these can be easily found online via NHS Choices.
Other key findings from FPAs survey of sexually active 16 to 24 year olds included:
- 47% reported never having had an STI test
- more than a quarter (28%) said buying condoms can be embarrassing
- only one third (32%) said they learnt how to confidently talk to a partner about using condoms during their sex and relationships education
It is really important for us to understand any of the barriers young people may experience when it comes to practicing safe sex and engaging with sexual health services. Having a better insight of these mean we can provide more information and education to allay concerns.
We can reduce infections among young people and other groups in London by continuing to ensure sexual health services are accessible, educating the public and informing healthcare professionals about the burden of STIs in London and ensuring that the PHE recommendations for safe sex are effectively communicated.
At Public Health England London improving the sexual health of Londoners is a priority and we are working with partners across the healthcare system to turn the tide of poor sexual health in the capital.