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  • Writer's pictureLove Ballymena

Worrying rise in diagnoses of some STIs – Chief Medical Officer

There are worrying increases in the diagnoses of some Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) has said.

Professor Sir Michael McBride said there was a growing trend of chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis diagnoses in Northern Ireland compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Sir Michael was addressing the 27th Annual Regional Sexual Health Conference in NI, which brought together 200 delegates from a range of statutory organisations including the Health and Social Care Trusts, the Public Health Agency (PHA) and wider civil society.

The CMO told conference delegates that some of the increases in diagnoses may reflect a rise in the identification of cases due to better access to testing.

But he added: “There are also indicators of increased transmission including increased positivity rates among online testers and similar trends in increasing STI diagnosis in the Republic of Ireland and other parts of the UK.

“Consequently, the Public Health Agency is currently working on the development of a mass media campaign to raise awareness regarding sexual health, STI risk and testing access.”

This campaign is due to run in parallel with Sexual Health Awareness week in early 2023.

“In advance of this, the PHA will develop universal and targeted messaging regarding STIs and testing, working alongside essential community and voluntary sector partners,” Sir Michael added.

Figures released this week from the PHA showed there was a 47% increase in the overall number of STI tests carried out in 2021 compared with before the pandemic in 2019.

This was due to a significant increase in home STI testing, commissioned by the health service.

However, there was an increase in diagnoses made in sexual health clinics (GUM clinics) across all STIs groupings.

Sir Michael said work had recommenced on the development of a sexual health improvement action plan. Work on this had started in late 2019, but was delayed due to the pandemic.

Dr Gillian Armstrong, Consultant in Health Protection at the Public Health Agency (PHA), said:

“The increase in STI testing and diagnosis in 2021 reflects substantial improvements in access to testing and allows for the identification of people who are living in Northern Ireland with STIs to access treatment and decrease the risk of complications and of onward transmission to others. 


“It’s really good that we are seeing an increase in testing, both through GUM clinics and at home, as earlier diagnosis can mean treatment can begin sooner and the chances of transmission to others is reduced.” 


Young people and gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men are most likely to be diagnosed with an STI. 


Dr Armstrong continued:

“While it is encouraging to see more people availing of STI testing here, we would really like to see a reduction in the numbers of STIs diagnosed each year. This will only occur if people take proactive steps to look after their sexual health and wellbeing. 


“If you are sexually active, use condoms – when used correctly, they are the only form of contraception that can protect against both unplanned pregnancy and STIs. If you are sexually active, using condoms is an important part of taking care of your sexual health. Limit your number of sexual partners and get tested quickly if you think you might be at risk of having contracted a STI. 


“Men who have sex with men having unprotected sex with casual or new partners should be screened for HIV and other STIs at least annually, and every three months if changing partners regularly, due to the increased risk of infection. They should also consider the use of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) which can reduce an individual’s risk of getting HIV from sex. When taken as prescribed, PrEP is highly effective for preventing HIV, however it does not protect against other STIs so the use of condoms remains really important. 


“Remember that people with STIs don’t always have symptoms. The best way to protect yourself is by choosing to use a condom when having sex and taking an STI test if there is a chance you have contracted an STI – simply order a free and discreet home STI test now at or make an appointment at your nearest GUM clinic.” 


Information on looking after your sexual health, symptoms of STIs (as well as information on STIs which may be symptomless) can be found at 


• In 2021 the number of STI tests within GUM clinics increased by 31% when compared to 2020. This follows the 69% decrease in STI testing in 2020 when compared with 2019.

• There was a 45% increase in home STI testing in 2021 when compared with 2020.

• New diagnoses of chlamydia decreased by 3% - 750 diagnoses in 2021 compared with 775 in 2020. However, taking into account diagnoses made via online sexual health testing service SH24 -  there has been an overall 35% increase in chlamydia.

• New diagnoses of gonorrhoea increased by 43% - 652 in 2021 compared with 455 in 2020.

• New diagnoses of genital herpes simplex (first episode) increased by 19% - 348 in 2021 compared with 293 in 2020.

• There has been no significant change in the new diagnoses of genital warts (first episode) in 2021 compared with 2020.


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