Wednesday September 19, 2001

Unsafe Sex Could Herald HIV Upsurge in UK

By Ray Dunne

LONDON (Reuters Health) - A rise in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the UK could be an early warning sign of an imminent upsurge in new cases of HIV and AIDS, experts warned on Tuesday.

Doctors at the Public Health Laboratory Service's (PHLS) annual scientific conference in Warwick heard that an increase in the number of people practicing unsafe sex was to blame for a sharp rise in STIs and recent outbreaks of syphilis.

Dr. Kevin Fenton of the PHLS communicable disease surveillance unit suggested that a rise in new cases of HIV and AIDS could soon follow.

He suggested the rise in STIs could be linked to the expansion of the ``sex marketplace'' in the UK. ``There has been a global increase in people, particularly young people, practicing unsafe sex,'' Fenton told the conference. "But there has also been a general expansion of what I would describe as the sex marketplace by which I mean the number of people using the Internet to meet partners for sex and the opening of more sex clubs.''

Fenton added that there was a need to educate the public on the risks associated with unsafe sex, saying that many people had become complacent in recent years with the advent of antiretroviral therapies to fight HIV and AIDS.

The re-emergence of syphilis in the UK was disappointing, Fenton said, considering it had almost been eradicated by the early 1990s. He also told doctors that they needed to remain vigilant for signs of the disease.

``We have heard of cases where GPs (general practitioners) and GUM (genito-urinary medicine) specialists have missed cases of syphilis. There needs to be a greater professional awareness of syphilis,'' he stressed.

The UK government announced in July that it would run a major public education campaign in early 2002 in an attempt to stem the rising tide of STIs. The campaign, the first in more than a decade, is part of a new National Strategy on Sexual Health and HIV Services.

Figures from the PHLS show that cases of gonorrhea in England and Wales are at their highest level in 10 years and rose by more than one-quarter between 1999 and 2000. There has also been a sharp increase in the number of reported cases of syphilis, which rose by 55% over the same period. In June, the PHLS reported the biggest rise in cases of HIV infection since the mid-1980s: up by 14% in 2000, a record 3,425 new cases.