Government accused of complacency over spread of sexually transmitted diseases

The extent of sexually transmitted diseases among children under 16 is revealed for the first time in figures issued by the Government yesterday.

The number of diagnoses of sex infections recorded among under-16s in England rose by 58 per cent from 2,474 in 2003 to 3,913 in 2007.

The biggest increase was in cases of chlamydia, the most common sexually transmitted infection, which rose by 90 per cent. Genital herpes was up by 42 per cent and genital warts by a third. Cases of syphilis doubled from three to six. The figures from Genito Urinary Medicine (Gum) Clinics and the National Chlamydia Screening Programme were released in a Commons answer to the Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb.

Health officials said the increase was due to better screening rather than a real increase in sex infections.

The National Chlamydia Screening Programme has been phased in since April 2003. Testing takes place in community contraceptive clinics and some further education colleges and more recently through postal testing kits and pharmacies.

A Department of Health spokesman said: "The programme has helped us to screen an increasing number of people for chlamydia. Since 2008, all primary care trusts have been reporting to the programme, which accounts for the recent increase in reported cases."

Mr Lamb said: "This shocking increase is a damning indictment of the Government's complacency when it comes to the sexual health of our children. The number of youngsters contracting sexually transmitted infections is very disturbing. Children must be informed about the risks involved in sexual relationships and taught how to be safe."

Overall, sexually transmitted infections in all age groups are at record levels with no sign that improved treatment, screening or education is able to reverse the tide.

The total increased by 6 per cent in 2007, the latest year for which figures are available, to 397,990 new cases. Almost half the cases were in patients aged 16 to 24, who comprise just 12 per cent of the population.

The rise in infections has been remorseless and stands 72 per cent higher than 10 years ago.

Young people have more sex infections because they have more sex, more partners (who tend to overlap) and more casual relationships.

Professor Peter Borriello, a former director of the Centre for Infections at the Health Protection Agency, has warned in the past about the dangers of casual sex.

"For young people a casual shag is part of the territory, it's a part of life. Increasingly a shag now stands for syphilis, herpes, anal warts and gonnorhoea. If you are going to go swimming and dive in the pool, make sure you know how to swim and be safe – which means wear a condom," he said.

But he acknowledged that heeding such advice was not easy – for any age group. "A chance encounter, a few too many drinks, peer pressure – to say to someone of 16 in a first encounter they should ask about condoms – that is not an easy thing to get across. In giving such messages we have to ask, to what extent would we follow them?"