Sexual health tests for all

Free home-testing kits to be given away at petrol stations, supermarkets and hairdressers. Sex diseases at record high as ministers prepare to invest millions in improving awareness

Marie Woolf
Sunday 12 February 2006 01:00

Free home-testing kits for sexually transmitted diseases are to be given away at supermarkets, barber shops and even petrol stations in a bid to combat record levels of sex infections sweeping the country.

The Government is to invest millions of pounds into testing for infections such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea, and funding home-testing kits. Results will even be texted to mobile phones, along with details of where to receive treatment.

Sexually transmitted diseases have been steadily increasing over the decades, with a current figure of almost 700,000 new diagnoses a year in England alone. There are fears that high levels of sexual activity among young people may be leading to an epidemic. Syphilis cases have risen by 1,421 per cent in England over the past decade, and diagnoses of chlamydia, the most common sex infection, have risen by 217 per cent since 1995.

The Department of Health is worried that thousands of people may be carrying diseases such as chlamydia, which can cause infertility in women, without realising it.

It fears that many young people are put off from making appointments to be tested in clinics and are spreading diseases among sexual partners. As part of the drive to "normalise" diagnosis, free test kits, funded by the Department of Health, are to be made available in the high street.

Caroline Flint, the public health minister, told The Independent on Sunday that she wanted to be "more visionary about the sort of way in which we provide these services" and to use new testing technology to help remove the "taboo" of testing for sexually transmitted diseases.

"If we make this whole area less of a taboo, we make it much more normal - as normal as people thinking about their weight or how many pieces of fruit they have every day," she said.

"The technology is moving so fast. People don't have to have somebody standing over them while they are doing the test."

The Department of Health believes that by offering home-testing kits, which can be sent in for a result, queues can be cut in clinics and money saved later in treating the symptoms of diseases. Health ministers fear that chlamydia is a major contributing factor to infertility, which causes misery for millions of couples and costs the NHS millions of pounds.

The move towards home testing follows a successful pilot at Boots, where more than 6,000 testing kits for chlamydia have been given away.

Ms Flint said the trial showed that the public wanted a move away from "traditional" sexual health services to those available on the high street.

It is also planned that mobile testing units will travel to army bases, football matches and even shopping malls. And a public information campaign to combat the rise of STIs among 16- to 24-year- olds, and particularly men, is to be launched this year.

The numbers of young people affected by sexual disease stabilised or fell during the 1980s and early 1990s but have risen again since Labour came to power. The highest rates of chlamydia are in teenage girls between 16 and 19, and among men and women aged between 20 and 24.

New diagnoses of sexual diseases including syphilis and gonorrhoea have also risen steeply. Almost 17,000 people were newly diagnosed with herpes in 2004, while 21,000 tested positive for gonorrhoea.

The Government is planning to invest up to £130m to develop one-stop clinics where people can be tested for sexually transmitted diseases and treated in the same place. This week, the Government will also launch a campaign to ensure that GPs offer a variety of choices for contraception to women and men, including relatively new technology such as implants and jabs.

And the Department of Health is lobbying the Treasury to have VAT removed from condoms.

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