Health: Screening call to halt rise in infertility disease

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Urgent measures to halt a rapidly-spreading infectious disease that is responsible for up to one third of cases of infertility are to be considered by the Government's chief medical officer next week. Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor, reports.

An expert advisory group appointed by the Government last year has recommended that women under 25 should be screened for the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia, which affects up to one in five sexually active women in that age group.

Chlamydia is the commonest STD in Europe. It has been described as a silent epidemic because it is often impossible to detect until it is too late, resulting in infection causing irreversible damage to the reproductive tract. If identified at an early stage, the disease can be easily cured with a single dose of antibiotics.

In Europe, screening is commonplace and has led to a sharp fall in the incidence of infertility. Cases of pelvic inflammatory disease have risen by 50 per cent in Britain in the past 10 years - from 470 to 700 per 100,000 women at risk.

The recommendations of the expert group, chaired by Professor Allan Templeton, of Aberdeen University, will be considered by the National Screening Committee, chaired by Sir Kenneth Calman, the Government's chief medical officer, this week.

Yesterday, Professor Templeton said: "We looked at a variety of screening methods and we are recommending opportunistic screening should be introduced." Previously, Professor Templeton has said Britain had one of the best health services in the world but was "like Latvia" on chlamydia screening.

Chlamydia is normally symptomless in women until it ascends the reproductive tract to the fallopian tubes, causing pelvic inflammatory disease. This can result in permanent damage to the tubes, leading to infertility and ectopic pregnancy. Chlamydia also affects men, causing non-specific urethritis.

In Britain, studies show that between 3-10 per cent of women attending family planning clinics carry the micro-organism but the proportion rises to more than 20 per cent among those seeking abortion.

Opportunistic screening means that women would be tested only when they consulted the doctor for other reasons. The test, which can be conducted on a urine sample, costs pounds 4-6 which the expert group says would be re- couped in savings on later treatment of pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy and infertility.

A spokeswoman for the health department said that ministers would be considering the report in the light of advice from the National Screening Committee.