As World AIDS Day approaches (Dec 1) and the Public Health Agency publishes the ‘HIV and STI surveillance in Northern Ireland 2010’ report, it is clear that despite headline figures showing a recent reduction in some sexually transmitted infections (STIs), the overall trend over the past few years has been an increase in most STIs.
The number of new HIV diagnoses fell by 25%, from 91 in 2008 to 68 in 2009. The number of people living with HIV in Northern Ireland has increased fourfold since 2000, however, rising to 424 in 2009, a 7% increase on 2008. This is due to new diagnoses each year and people with HIV living longer because of advances in treatment. Although more than half of diagnoses in 2009 occurred in men who have sex with men, heterosexual transmission has assumed increasing importance and similar numbers of people are now acquiring their infection through heterosexual contact. The majority of infections in men who have sex with men are acquired within the United Kingdom, while the majority of infections acquired through heterosexual contact are acquired outside the UK.
Elsewhere, the report highlights how young people and gay men remain the groups most at risk of acquiring an STI. Together, chlamydia and genital warts account for 66% of all new STI diagnoses made at Northern Ireland GUM clinics in 2009, with 20–34 year old men and 16–24 year old women the groups most at risk. Gay men are the group at greatest risk of acquiring infectious syphilis and gonorrhoea.
Dr Neil Irvine, Consultant in Health Protection, Public Health Agency, said: “World AIDS Day is a great opportunity to raise awareness about HIV, which continues to be both a global and a local threat to health. It’s extremely important that we continue to monitor HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, and look at the overall trends, not just the variations that can occur naturally each year. Understanding which groups are most at risk helps the Public Health Agency and our partners in the community, voluntary and statutory sectors work towards reducing HIV and STIs across Northern Ireland.”
HIV and STIs can have a devastating effect on health, particularly if left undetected, so it is important for anyone who is sexually active to always use a condom, limit the number of sexual partners, and have a checkup if you have put yourself at risk.
Dr Louise Herron, Specialist Registrar in Public Health, said: “It is essential that people are aware of the risks of unprotected intercourse. Our figures show the importance of reinforcing the safer sex message to everyone. People need to be aware of the risks associated with casual sex, use condoms and limit the number of partners they have. If you think you have put yourself at risk, go and get tested at your GP surgery or your local Genito Urinary Medicine clinic.”
For information or advice on STIs, or to discuss any sexual health issue, contact your local Genito Urinary Medicine (GUM) clinic or your GP.
For further information, contact: PHA Press Office, Ormeau Avenue, on 028 9031 1611
Notes to the editor
68 new first-UK HIV diagnoses were made in Northern Ireland during 2009, a decrease of 25% on 2008 (91); 424 HIV-infected residents of Northern Ireland received HIV-related care during 2009, an increase of 7% on 2008 (396); 56 new diagnoses of infectious syphilis were reported during 2009, a decrease of 11% on 2008 (63).
In Northern Ireland GUM clinics during 2009:
- New diagnoses of uncomplicated chlamydia decreased by 2%; 1,906 in 2009 compared with 1,946 in 2008;
- New diagnoses of uncomplicated gonorrhoea decreased by 20%; 180 in 2009 compared with 226 in 2008.
- New diagnoses of genital warts (first attack) decreased by 3%; 2,086 in 2009 compared with 2,143 in 2008.
- New diagnoses of genital herpes simplex (first attack) increased by 17%; 346 in 2009 compared with 296 in 2008.
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that, after exposure, infects the cells of your immune system and destroys or impairs them. Your body is then less able to fight off other infections. AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is the most advanced stage of HIV infection.
HIV is transmitted through contact with bodily fluids such as blood. Within Northern Ireland, most transmission occurs through unprotected sexual intercourse or oral sex with an infected person. However, HIV can also be transmitted by sharing contaminated needles, through transfusion of contaminated blood and from mother to baby. There is no cure for HIV, but treatment with highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) can help prolong life expectancy.