The rise in STIs…

In the last few years, Ireland has fallen victim to a silent sexual disease epidemic. More people than ever are becoming infected with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and health boards are rapidly reviewing and expanding their STI clinics to cope with the ever-increasing demand.

Figures for sexually transmitted infections are gathered by the National Disease Surveillance Centre, and the statistics for last year reveal just how prevalent such diseases have become in Ireland today. Over 7,200 people were found to be infected with some form of STI other than HIV last year, of whom less than half were in the greater Dublin area.

Genital warts

The most common complaint was anal or genital warts, which was found in over 3,000 people. A further 1,300 people were treated for urethritis, a micro-organism based infection that causes burning pain when passing urine. Genital warts are caused by the HPV (human papilloma virus) virus, which has been implicated in helping to cause cervical cancer. Over 1,000 people were treated for chlamydia, which can cause infertility if not caught in time.


Alcohol or illicit drugs are usually involved when people catch an STI - they lower inhibitions and cloud one's ability to judge safe sexual activity from irresponsible sex.

While the most serious STI infections were relatively uncommon, they still showed a sharp rise on previous years. More than 200 people were found to be suffering from gonorrhoea, known colloquially as the 'clap' and 35 people were treated for syphilis, which was all but eradicated only a few years ago.

In the mid-Western Health Board area, there has been a huge increase in both the number of people attending an STD clinic and also the number of people diagnosed with an infection. Last year, over 5,600 people attended for STI treatment in the region, compared with under 1,400 in 1995. The director of the STD clinic at the Mid-Western Regional Hospital in Limerick, Dr Catherine O'Connor, reported that this year has seen an increase in positive diagnoses of 40% on 2000.


Ireland's most common sexually transmitted disease - genital warts. Over 3,000 were diagnosed last year alone. They can be treated, but they are always likely to return as there is no cure.

No symptoms

Dr O'Connor is particularly concerned about the rapid rise in chlamydia among women in the area. Known as the 'silent infection' because half of infected men and 80% of infected women experience no symptoms, the bacterial infection can lead to a raft of serious difficulties. Chlamydia is simply treated with a course of antibiotics, but can cause prostatitis in men and ectopic pregnancy in women if left untreated.

"The chance of a patient becoming infertile is increased by 13% following a first episode of chlamydia, with the percentage rising to 75% for a third and subsequent episode", Dr O'Connor explained. She is now heading a study to examine the prevalence of the disease in Limerick, Clare and Tipperary, the first such study undertaken in Ireland. With the co-operation of GPs from the region, she hopes to establish the true extent of the disease in the mid-Wes, and use the information to develop programmes to tackle its spread.

The Mid-Western region has also seen an alarming rise in the incidence of genital warts. New research also suggests that there may be a link between chlamydia and cervical cancer too.

Rise in female cases

People in the North West can avail of STI services at Altnagelvin hospital in Derry as well as a clinic at Sligo General hospital. The region's clinics saw a 17% increase in the number of people attending, a rise similar to that seen throughout the country. Of particular concern in the region is the fact that most attendees at the area's clinics last year were women (55%) and the majority were young - one in five were teenagers. The NWHB is now undergoing a review and expansion of its STI service in the hope that the message of safer sex can be got across better to young women in particular.

The Southern Health Board was the first health board to appoint a sexual health promotion officer as part of its health promotion strategy, but the safer sex message continues to fall largely on deaf ears. In the SHB area the rise in STIs led last summer to a second clinic opening at Tralee General Hospital to complement the work of the existing clinic at Cork's Victoria hospital.

HIV/AIDS

The SHB clinics report a year on year rise of attendances going back to 1995. Over 5,000 patients were seen in the region last year, a figure set to be greatly exceeded this year, the first full year that the Tralee clinic has been in operation. Special attention in the region is being paid to HIV/AIDS, which is becoming increasingly prevalent in urban areas. Last year maternity hospitals in the area introduced an antenatal HIV screening service because of the increasing numbers of pregnant women who were infected with the virus.


A pubic lice clinging to a hair.

So what can actually be done to counter this tide of sexually transmitted disease? Quite rightly, healthcare workers see it as preventable. Sexually transmitted diseases are the price we pay for being irresponsible when we are sexually active. Sexually transmitted infections are passed from person to person during sexual activity, when the bacteria or virus that contains the bears the disease is transferred from one partner to the other in blood, semen or other body fluids.

STIs are sexually transmittable only - all the misplaced fear in the 1980s over getting AIDS from toilet seats or swimming pools is equally ridiculous when applied to any other STI. They are transmitted by any sexual contact, whether oral, anal or vaginal, that does not involve barrier protection.

Condoms

The pill might help if avoiding pregnancy is your aim, but it is of no use whatsoever in blocking the transmission of an STI. Only condoms have been demonstrated to prevent the spread of STIs during sexual contact. It is likely that most health boards will now invest in more public health information about safer sex, in the hope that more people will use condoms when they go to bed with a partner. Currently, given the numbers pouring through STI clinic doors, it seems that even the fear of catching AIDS (also on the rise) has not stopped people from having unsafe sex.

HIV/AIDS is undoubtedly the most serious of all STIs, as it remains incurable. HIV/AIDS can, however, be treated with antiretroviral medications and HIV positive people can live lengthy and relatively healthy lives today. Other STIs do not pose the same degree of threat to personal health, but that does not mean that they cannot cause both pain and embarrassment, not to mention long-term health problems.

Insanity

Syphilis, for example, can actually lead to both insanity and death if left untreated for a long period of time, whereas herpes, once caught, never fully goes away. There is currently an outbreak of this once historical illness in Ireland, predominantly among gay men, though heterosexuals have also been affected.


Second degree syphilis causes unsightly lesions on the body.

Other STIs can cause damage to reproductive organs, affecting one's ability to have children at a later date. Infertility, ectopic pregnancy, chronic pelvic infections and infections in newborns are only some of the possible complications that can arise if an STI is left untreated.

Of course, abstaining from sex is the only guaranteed method for avoiding infection with an STI. However, by practising safer sex, you can cut the risk of becoming infected. Anyone who is sexually active and not in a monogamous, strictly faithful relationship, can become infected. Using condoms that prevent the sharing of body fluids cuts down the likelihood of cross-infection, but occasionally they do fail during use.

Equally, the more irresponsible one behaves sexually, the greater the chance of becoming infected. Sleeping with a new partner is like sleeping with everyone they have ever slept with. Unprotected sex with a variety of partners will not only inevitably lead to an infection at some stage, but also leaves one at great risk of contracting HIV. Unfortunately, most STIs are not as immediately evident as, for example, the measles. In fact, a person can be infected with some STIs for a matter of weeks without experiencing a single symptom.

Tests

It is not possible to judge whether a person is infected with an STI by sight - it requires medical testing, which is why it is safest to take precautions when having sex. Your lover may not even know themselves if they have an infection. As it can be difficult to detect an STI infection sometimes, it is important to act whenever an obvious symptom does develop. You should attend your GP or local STI clinic if you ever notice:

  • An unusual discharge from your penis or vagina
  • Pain when you urinate
  • Sores or blisters in the genital region
  • Pain during intercourse
  • Blood in your urine or faeces

Back to Features

Back to Homepage