Unsafe sex sets Aids timebomb for the young

Health » A new awareness campaign is planned as rising levels of sexually transmitted infections alarm doctors
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Soaring levels of sexually transmitted infections have prompted the Government to launch a new campaign promoting safe sex.

Soaring levels of sexually transmitted infections have prompted the Government to launch a new campaign promoting safe sex.

Health ministers are drawing up an "action plan" which will include a public information and advertising campaign costing millions to target young people in their homes, schools and GPs' surgeries.

But it is unlikely to repeat the hard-hitting Aids ads of the 1980s. Department of Health officials say there is "no evidence that scare tactics work". But they are determined to use radio and TV and other media proven to be "more effective in engaging young people". Public Health Minister Yvette Cooper will oversee the campaign.

According to the latest figures available, the incidence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is increasing. The Public Health Laboratory figures showed that the number of cases of gonorrhoea rose last year by more than a quarter to 20,190 and new cases of chlamydia increased to 62,565. New cases of HIV hit a record 3,500. In total, the number of STIs in the UK has risen by almost 300,000 cases between 1995 and 2000.

Yet women and health professionals still favour the Pill as a contraceptive even though it offers no protection against infection.

This week, the British Medical Association publishes a new report looking at why STIs are on the increase and makes recommendations on how to reduce the figures. The BMA hopes its conclusions will inform the Government's Sexual Health and HIV Strategy in its implementation phase.

One development which is expected to be included in the £47.5m project will be the introduction of screening for chlamydia for women at family planning clinics and cervical smear appointments. Chlamydia often has no symptoms but can increase the risk of ectopic pregnancy and may cause infertility.

By 2003, all gay and bisexual men attending sexual health clinics will be offered vaccination against hepatitis B, which can lead to liver cancer.

Campaigners are urging the Government to place its emphasis on prevention rather than treatment. STI and Aids workers believe more time should be devoted to sexual disease in family planning clinics and in doctors' surgeries, in part to try to remove the stigma attached to sexually transmitted infections. Some want Pill manufacturers to include literature promoting barrier contraceptives.

The Government is considering ways of getting its message across but health ministers are reluctant to "intervene too much in people's private lives". It is also looking at specific ways of communicating with young people. Most new cases of STIs, latest figures showed, were found among 16- to 19-year-olds – linked to the fall in the average age people first have sex from 20 to 17. But there is evidence too that people in their 20s and early 30s, who perhaps were not sexually active at the height of the Aids campaign, are not practising safe sex.

The sexual health strategy, the first of its kind in the UK, sets out the future of sexual health services for the next five to 10 years.

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