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Last year saw largest number of syphilis diagnoses reported since 1949

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Rates of syphilis are at their highest since 1949 show the latest official statistics on sexually transmitted infections, which have been greeted with dismay by sexual health experts.

Latest figures from Public Health England show that, overall, there were 420,000 STIs reported in England in 2016.

“A further rise in syphilis rates is deeply disappointing”

Patrick French

While this is down 4% on the previous year, experts described rates as “unacceptably high” and said that funding cuts to services would hamper their ability to tackle an “ongoing sexual health crisis”.

Specifically, cases of syphilis have increased by 12%, from 5,281 in 2015 to 5,920 in 2016, according to the new report from PHE.

Rates of the bacterial infection – which can cause serious life-threatening heart and brain conditions, and increases the risk of transmitting HIV – have increased 97% since 2012.

Dr Patrick French, consultant in sexual health and HIV at Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust, said the further rise was “deeply disappointing”.

“An infection, which had been eradicated in the 1980s and 1990s, has now returned and it is at its highest levels since 1949,” he said.

“This shows there is still a lot to be done, and sexual health promotion and easy access to high quality testing and treatment services for people at risk of STIs remain a public health priority,” he noted.

The figures showed STIs were most prevalent among young heterosexuals aged 15 to 24, black ethnic minorities, and gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.

“We’re facing huge challenges, such as the continued rise of syphilis”

Michael Brady

Dr Michael Brady, medical director at the Terrence Higgins Trust, said the fact that sex and relationships education would soon be mandatory in schools was positive.

But he said such education must include information about STI testing and lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans relationships and “not just heterosexual sex and reproduction”.

He also raised concerns about the impact of cuts to local authority public health budgets.

“Now is not the time to be scaling back sexual health services,” he said. “Cuts to chlamydia testing, for example, are having a visible impact, with the figures showing there has been a 9% decrease in the number of chlamydia tests taken.

“It is 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,” he added.

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