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Sex and the City

Fergus Walsh | 14:06 UK time, Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Let's talk about sex. To be more specific, let's talk about sexually transmitted infections. This was the task I set myself in Hackney, east London.

Why Hackney? It had just emerged as the area in England with the highest rate of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) per head of population. Not far behind were Lambeth and a string of other London boroughs, plus Nottingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Brighton.

The disease mapping experts at the Health Protection Agency said they have several common factors: all are urban with pockets of deprivation and crucially, they have a high proportion of young adults.

Broadway market in E8 is a trendy spot in Hackney and there were plenty of young, affluent young adults out and about. One woman, who was flat-hunting, said it didn't feel like a deprived area given the cost of housing. Another said Hackney had shuffled off its reputation for drugs and crime, but now would have another unpleasant label. As she unkindly put it: "We've gone from Crackney to Clapney." Let's hope the label doesn't stick.

I confess I was surprised at the willingness of young people, when accosted on the street, to talk openly about sexually transmitted infections. Admittedly they were not telling me about their own problems, but about the youth culture which has seen a steady rise in STIs over the past decade.

Safe sex messages may seem dull and repetitive when you have heard them again and again. But they are important. Bear in mind that each year sees another million or so young people becoming sexually active. Last year almost half a million STIs were diagnosed - a record total. Part of that increase is due to increased screening and better tests. But the past decade has seen a relentless rising trend in infections.

The peak age for an STI is between 19 and 20 for women and 20-23 for men. And re-infection is a serious problem. Of all 15-24 year olds diagnosed with an STI last year around one in ten will become re-infected within a year. Around two thirds of new STI diagnoses in women were in those under 25 while in men it was more than half of new infections.

Dr Gwenda Hughes from the HPA said the figures show poor sexual health is a serious problem among the UK's young adults and men who have sex with men:

"These figures also highlight the vulnerability of young women. Many studies have shown that young adults are more likely to have unsafe sex and often they lack the skills and confidence to negotiate safer sex."

...or no sex at all, which is obviously another option. Alcohol and other drugs often go hand-in-hand with risky sexual behaviour. Add to that teenage pregnancy and HIV infection and a range of serious social issues present themselves.

So what more can be done?

There is clearly concern among those in the sexual health field that the area will experience cuts. Natika Halil from the Family Planning Association said:

"The message from this data to the new Government is that they mustn't be tempted to cut services and campaigns in sexual health, and ignore the urgent need for statutory sex and relationships education in schools."

The Health Minister Paul Burstow said:

"We're going to look at what more can be done to increase young people's awareness of risks, to prevent infection and to access screening and treatment. The message is clear - whatever your age - to protect yourself from a sexually transmitted disease always use a condom."

Whether young people in Hackney or elsewhere are listening to Mr Burstow is another matter. Clearly this is not just an issue for government or schools but society as a whole.


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