A silent epidemic

IF you are aged under 25 and sexually active there's a one in ten chance you could have a sexually-transmitted disease you might never have heard of, even though you feel perfectly well.

IF you are aged under 25 and sexually active there's a one in ten chance you could have a sexually-transmitted disease you might never have heard of, even though you feel perfectly well. SHEENA GRANT reports on a new screening programme in Suffolk.

IT'S been called the silent epidemic for good reason.

Infections of the sexually-transmitted disease chlamydia more than doubled between 1996 and 2002 and most sufferers do not even know they have it.

If you haven't heard of chlamydia, you're in good company - a substantial proportion of the UK population hasn't heard of it either, including young people, who are most at risk of contracting it. Sufferers often have no symptoms until irreversible damage has been done; chlamydia can lead to infertility in women, can be passed on to unborn children and cause acute arthritis in men.


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Experts say that if you are sexually active and aged under 25, there is a one in ten chance that you have chlamydia. Those statistics have been borne out by a new screening programme being offered free to under 25s in Suffolk and more people are now being urged to come forward for testing.

The chlamydia screening programme has targeted the under 25 age group because it has the highest rates of infection.

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By the end of July 2007 a total of 2094 young people in Suffolk had taken up the offer of free screening with 237 testing positive (11pc). Increasing numbers of young people have been using the service since it started in June 2006.

Screening is non-invasive, requiring no uncomfortable examination and is free to young people aged under 25 years. Negative results can be texted to young people where possible, which is the preference of the majority.

The service, funded and supported by Suffolk Primary Care Trust (PCT), is working with contraception and 3Cs clinics across Suffolk, 4YP Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, the minor injuries unit, Felixstowe and some GP practices, who are all able to offer screening.

Pam Frost, chlamydia PCT screening co-ordinator, said: “Sexual Health is a priority for the PCT. We want to reduce the spread and complications due to sexually-transmitted infections. It has been particularly important to flag up this free service for under 25s, which has already helped several young people and their partners.

“Treatment is provided by the chlamydia screening team for all asymptomatic patients and their partners, which has helped to avoid additional pressures on the Sexual Health and GUM services at Ipswich Hospital and West Suffolk Hospital.

“Screening and treating partners is an important aspect of the programme if you are to prevent spread of chlamydia and, to date, we have seen 67 per cent of the partners of patients who tested positive and offered screening and treatment.”

The programme is part of a national initiative to tackle what has been a growing problem among young people in the UK.

Because three quarters of those infected will not have any symptoms they will not seek medical help and may suffer dire consequences further down the line, as well as passing the disease on to any other sexual partners they may have in the meantime.

“You have got to screen a significant number of young people to reap the benefits,” said Pam. “Anybody who has ever been sexually active should be screened. It is about taking responsibility for your own health. You may only have had one partner but they, in turn, could have had two or three other partners.

“The message is: if you have ever been sexually active, whether you have got symptoms or not, you should be getting checked out.”

An important part of the programme's work is education. Staff advocate using condoms to increase protection against chlamydia and other sexually-transmitted diseases - although this in itself does not offer a 100pc guarantee - and are working to raise awareness about sexual health in general.

They have been in the community to spread the word about screening and why it is important. In addition, they are able to talk about and offer advice on other sexually-transmitted diseases. They have gone along to events like Music in the Park and worked with refuge centres, Connexions, schools and colleges.

Pam said: “It is not enough for young people to think, it is easy to get tested and treated for Chlamydia, it doesn't matter if I get it again. It does matter. The more times you have this infection the more likely it is that you will develop problems.”

If the experience of other countries who have successfully tackled the spread of Chlamydia is to be repeated, the UK is now doing the right things.

In western European countries where routine screening has been carried out for much longer, particularly Scandinavia, Denmark and Holland, chlamydia infections have decreased over the last 15 years - in some instances to almost zero, with a corresponding decrease in complication rates of pelvic infection and ectopic pregnancies.

In some of these countries initiatives such as discussing sexually-transmitted diseases in school-based sex education programmes, making Chlamydia tests widely available and undertaking high-profile public education campaigns have been running for years, in Sweden's case more than 20 years.

Suffolk residents who want advice can call the screening service on 01473 275228 or see www.amiclear.com. The website carries information about where to go for screening, what chlamydia is and how easy it is to treat.

People who are over the age of 25 who think they may have been in contact with the infection should contact their nearest sexual health/GUM clinic or ask the practice nurse at their GP Practice.

Chlamydia

The most common bacterial sexually-transmitted infection and is caused by a tiny bacterium, Chlamydia trachomatis.

Most sufferers will have no symptoms

One in ten young people aged between 16 and 25 years could have Chlamydia, which is easily treated with antibiotics

Left untreated, it presents a high cost to the NHS with long-term complications such as pelvic infection and infertility.

The infection is most common and most likely to cause serious complications in younger women

In men, chlamydia can lead to a painful infection in the testicles called epididymitis, and possibly reduced fertility.

Chlamydia is almost always transmitted through sexual intercourse - the more partners you have, the more likely you are to be exposed to infection. However, you only need to have unprotected sex with one person who has the infection and you can catch it.

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