Championing healthy relationships

and sexual wellbeing

Are STIs being given enough focus?

Written by Esteem Network Director, Gareth

For years, teaching about STIs (sexually transmitted infections) has been a core part of the Esteem programme.

The 14th of January was chosen as STIQ day because most STIs take a minimum of two weeks to incubate. So, two weeks into the start of the year, we want to consider how much attention are we giving to STIs and asking - should we be giving more?

Many adults remember lessons on STIs from when they were at school, for many of us it's a core example of how we were taught about relationships and sex.

Sadly, many of us have stories of underwhelming relationships and sex education. We experienced STI lessons which missed the mark, which spread false rumours, which increased stigma and, generally, didn't meet our needs.

At Esteem, our aim is to do much better!

In England, the good news is that the number of new infections of two STIs are declining every year:

  • The widespread rollout of the HPV vaccine has drastically reduced the number of new cases of genital warts.
  • Equally we appear to be reducing the number of new infections of HIV due to a combination of focused awareness campaigns, the use of PreP, and the fact that HIV cannot be transmitted when it is undetectable in the blood due to good use of antiretroviral medicine.

These are two good news stories. It is brilliant how we have managed to move the dial on two significant STIs in the UK.

However, that is not the full story. Other STIs, in particular bacterial STIs, are not showing a decline.

Chlamydia is the most diagnosed STI in the UK especially amongst young people and young adults. The COVID pandemic caused a temporary decline in the number of new diagnoses but hasn't changed the long term pattern with last year's figures showing a return to pre-pandemic levels.

Another bacterial STI to be concerned about is gonorrhoea. Over the last decade, we've seen an alarming rise in the potential of gonorrhoea becoming resistant to most antibiotics currently used. Currently gonorrhoea is not as common as chlamydia, but it is showing an exponential growth curve which means that it may overtake chlamydia as the most common STI in England by the end of the decade.

So in summary - some STIs are declining, others are rising.

High quality relationships and sex education needs to both celebrate the success of the decline in numbers of some STIs and raise awareness of the STIs which are showing relentless growth.

The curriculum for any subject is often packed with topics and RSE is no different. Classroom time is squeezed, there is so much to fit in. And in many circumstances, STIs can feel like a less pressing issue compared to other topics such as sexual consent or online behaviour.

Sadly, this means some schools make the difficult decision to reduce the number of lessons on STIs within their RSE programme.

Young people deserve better.

The Esteem programme is committed to the long term roll out of high quality modern, effective teaching around STIs. Both in our direct education work with schools and our training of other youth practitioners, we ensure that STIs are a topic we focus on.

We provide lessons on general STI information, STI prevention and focused lessons on specific STIs such as HIV.

We want to empower and encourage young people to both understand the biology and base the decisions they make about any current or future sexual behaviour on good self-esteem and a robust understanding of how to have healthy relationships.

We believe young people deserve the highest quality relationships and sex education that intertwines the emotional, the practical and the biological.

This STIQ day, we encourage you to talk to your local schools about what they are doing to help address STIs in the community.

The shame and stigma that surrounds STIs often creates a barrier to people flourishing.

Education and awareness campaigns have a significant part to play in moving the dial of community opinion. We hope that our work can contribute to more people taking STIs seriously and, without shame, taking steps to look after their own health and the health of others.