Nurses must do their part to help prevent trends in STIs across England, according to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), but they are being held back by a lack of investment as syphilis rates spike.
Figures published on 6 June from Public Health England (PHE) show there were approximately 420,000 sexually transmitted infections (STIs) reported in England in 2016, down by 4% since 2015.
However, syphilis rates are at the highest since 1949 with a 12% increase in the number of syphilis diagnoses between 2015 and 2016 and a Hepatitis A outbreak continues to affect gay and bisexual men.
Schools nurses were highlighted by the RCN as a frontline to sexual health education and STI prevention, but are now said to be limited by lack of investment.
RCN lead for public health nursing Helen Donovan said: ‘These figures are deeply concerning but not surprising. Decreases in testing risks further transmission of infection, potentially turning individual cases into a much wider public health issue. Amid cuts to public health budgets and sexual health clinics struggling to recruit and retain staff, more needs to be done to raise awareness of sexual health and STIs.
‘Traditionally school nurses have played their part in promoting sexual health but these services have also been affected by cuts in staff numbers. They are now less able to promote the importance of sexual health with young people.
‘If we are to continue the progress made in sexual health there needs to be greater investment in the workforce and support for services to work in a more integrated way. We urge the government to reduce the fragmentation of sexual health services caused by complex commissioning arrangements.’
STI charity the Terrence Higgins Trust has urged the government to do more to tackle the spread of infections.
Trust medical director Dr. Michael Brady said: ‘Today’s figures show unacceptably high rates of STIs. We’re facing huge challenges, such as the continued rise of syphilis and ongoing concerns around drug-resistant gonorrhoea, and we urgently need to address the nation’s poor sexual health and rates of STIs in those most at risk.
‘In this climate of cuts to local authorities’ public health budgets, this is particularly concerning. Now is not the time to be scaling back sexual health services. Cuts to chlamydia testing for example are having a visible impact, with today’s figures showing that there has been a 9% decrease in the number of chlamydia tests taken.
‘It is also now essential that Public Health England, the Department of Health and local authorities ensure improved access to effective STI and HIV testing, treatment and prevention services. Otherwise, we cannot expect to address the ongoing sexual health crisis.’