‘Encouraging signs that we may be starting to stem the tide of STIs’

Dr Fiona Carey, Consultant Clinical Lead in Sexual Health with the South Eastern Health Trust.
Dr Fiona Carey, Consultant Clinical Lead in Sexual Health with the South Eastern Health Trust.

The number of people in the Lisburn area being diagnosed with the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) has “plateaued” over the past couple of years, it has been revealed.

However, while figures for some infections are stabilising, others such as gonorrhea and syphilis are continuing to rise.

Dr Fiona Carey (right) with the South Eastern Trust's Sexual Health Team.

Dr Fiona Carey (right) with the South Eastern Trust's Sexual Health Team.

According to Dr Fiona Carey, the South Eastern Health Trust’s Consultant Clinical Lead in Sexual Health, there are signs that the “tide” of STIs in the area is starting to be stemmed, thanks to improvements in education, prevention, services and treatments.

Dr Carey, along with Nurse Consultant Dr Carmel Kelly, was a key player in setting up the Public Health Agency-funded Primary Care Project which, following a successful pilot in North Down, was extended to Lisburn in 2014 and rolled out across the rest of the Trust area last year.

The unique partnership between the Trust’s Sexual Health Service and local GP practices means that around 54 of the 60 GP practices in the South Eastern Trust area now offer sexual health check-ups to heterosexual males and females over 16 years old. The service provides asymptomatic screening for conditions including HIV, syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea.

“You can’t get a much closer service than going to your own GP so we are really fortunate to have a service that’s so quick and accessible,” Dr Carey commented.

The award-winning project has freed up resources within the Trust, meaning GPs can diagnose and treat “the worried well” while secondary care service staff at the Trust’s genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics in Lisburn, Bangor and Downpatrick are free to deal with more serious and complicated cases.

Dr Carey, who has a background in General Practice, revealed that GPs across Lisburn see around 400 new STI cases each year, while the GUM clinic at the health centre sees around 800 cases - not all of which produce positive diagnoses.

According to the Trust’s latest figures, two of the most prevalent STIs in the local area are chlamydia and genital warts. However, figures for both conditions have begun to “plateau” over the past couple of years.

Primary and secondary care services in Lisburn diagnosed more than 125 cases of chlamydia last year, while the local GUM clinic saw more than 70 cases of genital warts - both similar figures to the previous year.

Genital warts are caused by certain strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV). Different strains of the virus are linked to a number of cancers, including cervical cancer.

However, with a vaccination programme now being offered to girls at 12 years old and men under 45 years old who have sex with men, Dr Carey believes that over the next 10 years the number of cases of genital warts will drop considerably.

Commenting on the latest STI figures for the local area, Dr Carey commented: “I think people are more aware of their sexual health these days and within the heterosexual community we are seeing encouraging signs that we may be starting to stem the tide of STIs. There is though a cohort of patients who are continuing to get infections.”

Stressing that people in socioeconomically deprived areas “carry a disproportionate burden” in terms of sexual ill health, she continued: “Cases of chlamydia and warts are plateauing, but we have seen a huge increase in gonorrhea cases in the last number of years, but that could be down to the new test that is a lot more sensitive.

“We have seen a big increase in gonorrhea but that is beginning to stabilise as well.

“There had been an inexorable rise in some STIs, but thankfully that seems to have been stemmed.

“I think the key message is that we are managing to stem the side in terms of chlamydia and genital warts, but things like syphilis and gonorrhea are still a major problem, particularly among men who have sex with men.”

STIs remain more prevalent among young people, particularly girls aged 15 - 19 and young men aged 20 - 24, but GPs and clinics are starting to see more older people.

“We are seeing now, with people getting divorced and changing their sexual partners, people in their 50s and 60s with STIs so the safer sex message applies throughout life,” Dr Carey said.

Stressing that contraception isn’t 100 per cent effective, Dr Carey’s advice to young people is to delay starting sexual activity until they are mature enough to cope with the consequences of things like unexpected pregnancy and STIs. She also advises that those who are sexually active get themselves and their partner “checked out”.

For anyone with concerns about their sexual health, Dr Carey’s advice is simple: “Get to your GP and get checked out. The GPs in Lisburn are brilliant in the work they do as part of this Primary Care Partnership.”

• The GUM clinic at Lisburn Health Centre is open every Monday and Thursday.

To make an appointment at Lisburn, or one of the Trust’s other GUM clinics, call the central appointment line on 028 4483 8133.