Posted on April 5, 2005

Sex Health Crisis Swamps Clinics

Jamie Doward, Guardian (London), Apr. 3

The true scale of Britain’s sexual health crisis is revealed today in a report showing that two-thirds of clinics are turning away patients because they cannot cope with demand for treatment.

The study, by sexual health charity the Terrence Higgins Trust, warns that clinics in England and Wales are ‘undergoing huge strain’, and predicts a further rise in sexually transmitted infections unless there is urgent action.

Of the clinicians surveyed, 64 per cent said they had turned away patients in the past year, a statistic that has prompted concerns among public health experts. ‘Despite the government’s commitment to improving sexual health, many primary care trusts and clinicians are still struggling to improve access to diagnostic and treatment services,’ said Lisa Power, the Higgins trust’s head of policy.

The report talks of ‘unacceptably’ longer waiting times. One in five patients is waiting a month for a sexually transmitted infection test, while more than a third wait two weeks or more for an HIV test. More than half of the clinics said their ability to provide services had deteriorated over the last year.

The study warns that the failure of many health trusts to deal with the problem could result in a ‘postcode lottery’ in which some of them end up helping to spread infections further as a result of spiralling waiting lists and refusal to see patients.

The findings follow a study led by University College London of the sexual life-styles of ethnic minority groups in Britain, which found that immigration and international travel could be helping to spread infections.

Researchers found the risk of acquiring HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases was likely to rise in ethnic minority groups because of migration, travel and family ties to the Indian subcontinent, south-east Asia and the Caribbean. One in 13 black men had reported an infection in the past five years. The figure for white men was one in 34 and for Indians and Pakistanis fewer than one in 50.

The trust’s findings could become an election issue. Conservative leader Michael Howard has accused Labour of helping fuel ‘an epidemic’ in infections by neglecting sexual health. He said: ‘We have the worst rates of sexual health since records began.’

Howard’s comments followed a Commons health select committee report blaming the ‘the dire’ state of sexual health services for NHS patients on the government, which has pledged to spend an extra £300 million on them.