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Grief Encounters
Protection vital to prevent disease

Irish Examiner 30/11/2005

by Ailin Quinlan

Ignorance among teenagers of the need to use condoms to protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is believed to be a major factor in the surge in notified cases of STIs.

According to the latest figures form the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, the total number of notified cases of STIs among those under 19 shot up from 231 in 1996 to 1226 in 2003.

In total, the overall number of notified STIs rose by nearly 112% from 5263 to 11153 between 1996 and 2003.

The increasing incidence of chlamydia trachomatis - a genital disease which has no symptoms in 50% of women and 70% of men, and which can result in infertility and and increased risk of pregnancy - is particularly worrying.

Between 1996 and 2003 notified cases of chlamydia leapt from 364 to 2258 while non-specific urethritis rose form 823 notified cases in 1996 to 2332 in 2003.

The official igures may only be the tip of the iceberg, according ot Dr Mary Cronin, a specialist in public health at the centre: "Notified cases represent the reported cases only. Many cases go unreported. Also because many of these STIs are asymptomatic, or silent - chlamydia or gonorrhoea can be described as the silent epidemic - that makes us concerned that the number of actual infections that are not diagnosed is also very high."

"I would be very concerned about the rise of STIs" she says, adding that they have been on the rise since the mid-1990s. The lack of awareness among teenagers of the need for protection against STIs is a serious issue, says Teresa McElhenny, SHB senior health promotion officer.

"STIs are not really talked about. It is not something young people are aware of. They are not mentioned much in the media."

Dr Cronin believes teenagers may be unaware of the risks or in denial. "Maybe they do not have the confidence or the ability to wear a condom. It is a very complex issue. We need to get out the message that it is important to wear a condom to protect against STIs as it is to use contraception to avoid pregnancy. Teenagers are under the illusion that oral sex is safe," she says.

She recalls some students who came in to interview her about the issues of teen pregnancy and sexuality.

"They had done a vox pop on Grafton Street as part of their project and they were amazed that the focus appeared to be on pregnancy - it seemed that there was not the same awareness about STIs."

"My worry is that the youn girls who are getting chlamydia may experience problems with fertility or ectopic pregnancies. Genital warts can be spread on fingers, oral sex can be a vehicle for transmission of STIs."

She further warns that it may not be beyond the bounds of possibility that the trend of 'fingering' may contribute to the problem - "it is about the exchange of body fluids."

"The best protection is abstinence, next to being faithful to one partner - or wear a condom every time," she says.

Parents should give their teenagers the confidence to negotiate safe sex, she says. "A lot of teenage girls do not have the bottle to ask for condom to be used, especially if there is alcohol taken."