It’s no surprise the reported number of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) has increased over the past couple of years. As well as a lack of face-to-face appointments during the pandemic, chronic underfunding in sexual health services from the UK government is one of the main reasons for this rise. Escalating cuts in public health, coupled with a lack of government strategy specifically for sexual health, means fewer people have access to sexual health screening and contraception.
These infections are completely preventable
Funding for sexual health is fragmented, falling between local authorities and the Department of Health and Social Care, so it becomes easy to cut funding in these areas. The government's women’s health strategy doesn’t include sexual health and contraception and its promised sexual health strategy has not materialised.
These infections are completely preventable and rising rates show that health promotion and screening opportunities are not reaching high risk groups. The burden of infection is carried by under-25s, men that have sex with men, the trans community and minority ethnic people. The figures illustrate widening health disparities and, left untreated, STIs will spread, threatening health, wellbeing and fertility.
STIs are treated with antibiotics and an increase in their use raises the risk of antimicrobial resistance, so prevention is key. STIs may also be associated with other risk-taking behaviour such as drug and alcohol misuse and it’s important to make sure risk factors are fully assessed and people are given the support they need to address this.
Every contact counts
Nursing staff have a powerful role to play in reducing the number of people contracting an STI; they’re skilled at having sensitive conversations in a non-judgemental way, giving people a space to talk. This applies to nursing staff in all settings, not just sexual health clinics or contraception services.
The UK government has failed to prioritise sexual health resulting in the rise of STIs
Nursing staff can use their communication skills to be proactive in finding out about someone’s sexual history, offering sexual health screening and where to get emergency contraception. It’s about using those opportunities when you’re in contact with patients that could help reduce the rise in STIs.
There needs to be clear policy, funding and commissioning for local health services to make sure we reduce the incidence of STIs. Last year, the UK government launched the women's health strategy, however this didn’t cover sexual health and contraception. The RCN, alongside other stakeholders, continues to campaign for a clear policy on sexual health and contraception accompanied by realistic funding.
The UK government has failed to prioritise sexual health resulting in the rise of STIs. The challenge is to respond to these worrying figures and make sure we’re using every opportunity to offer sexual health screening and talk about sexual health, and to continue to campaign for comprehensive sexual health services.
Ruth Bailey is the Chair of the RCN Women’s Health Forum, a Queen’s Nurse and an advanced nurse practitioner in sexual health in primary care.
In 2022, there were 392,453 STIs reported in England, a 24% rise on the previous year. Key statistics include:
- 50% increase in gonorrhoea since 2021
- 24% increase in chlamydia since 2021
- 15% increase in syphilis since 2021.
What is the RCN doing?
The RCN is one of the stakeholders that attends the All Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health, which meets to campaign for improvements in this area.
The RCN is also a stakeholder in the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH) Hatfield Vision, a framework that sets out what needs to be achieved to improve the health of 51% of the UK’s population and tackle the inequalities that women and girls face across their lifetime.