Sexual health clinics are on the austerity front line – and now STIs are surging

My local clinic was a tiny but efficient operation in northwest London, but slowly, we had lengthier and lengthier waits, and then, finally, closure

Kuba Shand-Baptiste
Wednesday 05 June 2019 16:35 BST
STIs have increased by 26 per cent in the last two years
STIs have increased by 26 per cent in the last two years

Just hours after the news broke that sexually transmitted infections have reached a 40-year high, another three clinics were shut down, this time in Scotland.

By the time I’ve finished writing this, whispers of more shutdowns across the UK will no doubt make their way through communities they once served, with reasons ranging from staff shortages to funding issues.

The warnings have been mounting steadily for years: “Cuts to sexual health services are putting patients at risk, says King’s Fund”; “Sexual health clinics turning patients away amid record demand”. But in the face of this, in percentage terms, sexual health testing and treatment services have faced more cuts “than any other public service”.

And now, predictably, the problem has escalated so much that STIs have increased by 26 per cent in two years, with gonorrhoea diagnoses rising by 249 per cent between 2009-2018.

As shocking as the news is, the fact that so little has been done to curb this problem is what I’m having difficulty wrapping my head around.

Like many of the social epidemics paralysing communities in Britain, this monumental issue could have been prevented had it not been for years of crushing austerity, which, by the end of 2015, saw the government announce plans to slash spending by £200m, and (at the time) by an expected £600m by 2021.

The then health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, presumably in a bid to pacify his harshest critics, even admitted as much, claiming that “reducing health inequalities” was “core to transforming the health system” months after the announcement, before proceeding to strangle public-health spending anyway.

And despite the government’s recent assurance of a £20.5bn budget increase for the NHS by 2023, the National Audit Office has warned that the pledge is far from enough.

All this, and now Public Health England has warned of an increased risk of contracting sexually transmitted “superbugs”, many of which, as the first UK case of “super-gonorrhea” revealed last year, require rigorous, extensive treatment.

We’re deep in the throes of the problem now. And who’s feeling the brunt of the nationwide neglect? The marginalised. STIs affect black people (particularly black people of Caribbean heritage) at a higher rate than any other ethnic group, while gay and bisexual men and young people between 15-24 are also faced with higher risks.

Out of all local authorities in England, according to the British Medical Association, it’s ethnically diverse and poverty-addled Lambeth Council that has had the “highest level of new sexually transmitted infections”, with demographically similar regions not far behind.

And still, there seems to be no discernable desire to solve the problem, even with health secretary Matt Hancock’s assertion last year that “prevention” is one of his three core priorities for the health and social care system.

My local clinic was a tiny but efficient operation in northwest London, but slowly, what was once a painless process of choosing my appointment online, or ringing up to secure one when the website was down, gave way to lengthier and lengthier waits, and then, finally, closure. That happened a couple of years ago, and I’m ashamed to admit that my vigilance over my own sexual health has taken a nosedive since then.

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The closest sexual health clinic I could find after that was an hour away, with the associated transport costs, compared to walking there on foot for nothing. And I’m speaking as someone with easier access to services compared to those who aren’t as financially stable, or able to travel long distances for help.

Things will only get worse from here if nothing is done. And no, home-testing kits aren’t enough to plug the gap in these vital services, even if they do happen to be a convenient option for a select few.

Instead of dedicating yet more funds to defence, Brexit and other areas that directly contribute to suffering, we need to reinvest in the services that save and prolong our lives. I just hope the government wakes up to the urgency of this issue before the next surge in STIs or superbugs sweeps the nation.

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