Hysteria on STIs is overdone

Sex sells papers, so today’s made hay with new figures for sexually-transmitted diseases. “Drunk ladettes fuel a boom in STIs” was the Daily Express headline. The Guardian went more modestly for “Young at risk as sexually transmitted infections soar”. The Sun (below) gave us “a sex bug explosion”.
What prompted these headlines? New data showing that in 2009 there were 482,696 new diagnoses of sexually-transmitted diseases, 12,000 more than in 2008. A very modest explosion indeed: hardly a pop.
A closer examination of the figures suggests how the modest increase came about. Numerically, almost all the rise in total infections between 2008 and 2009 can be accounted for by chlamydia – and the increase in chlamydia diagnoses, in turn, is almost all the result of the roll-out of the National Chlamydia Screening Programme, which last year detected 66,738 cases, against 48,376 in 2008.
Cases of chlamydia diagnosed in genito-urinary clinics actually declined from 107,123 to 99,767 last year, but thanks almost entirely to the increase from NCSP testing, the total number of diagnoses went up by just under 15,000. And since the total for all STI diagnoses went up by only 12,000, if it had not been for the NCSP detecting cases that would otherwise have been missed, total STI diagnoses would have gone down by a few thousand.
It is true that gonorrhoea diagnoses were up year-on-year but are still a long way below the levels recorded a few years ago – 17,385 new diagnoses in 2009 against almost 26,000 in 2002. Syphilis, a rare infection, fell by 1 per cent, herpes continued its recent steady rise, and “all other” STI diagnoses fell by 4 per cent.
As for the “ladette” line, two thirds of new infections in women were in those under 25. But there’s no change there from previous years. In 2004, for example, 76 per cent of new chlamydia infections, 73 per cent of gonorrhoea, and 64 per cent of genital warts in women were diagnosed in the under 25s. Herpes was the exception, with only 49 per cent of new infections occurring in this age group.
It’s hardly surprising. Young men and women have more sex, with more partners, than other age groups. If you’re going to catch and STI, the chances are strong it will be before the age of 25.
I can quite understand that neither the Health Protection Agency, which published the figures, nor the media would be happy with stories saying that STIs are flatlining. But that would have been nearer the truth. Insofar as there is an increase at all, it’s the result of better ascertainment, not of ladettes getting even more feckless than before.  
There may be far too many STIs for comfort, but it’s wrong to imply they are soaring, exploding, or even growing very significantly.