Condom illustration

Illustration: Aisling McGuire

As reports indicate that STIs are on the rise in Ireland, Patrick Kelleher looks at the importance of getting checked, as well as the importance of protecting against infection.

In UCD, there is no doubt that sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are common. Students are among the social groups most likely to engage in regular sexual activity with different partners, and therefore are particularly susceptible to becoming infected. Accompanied with the greater risk of infection is the stigma around STIs in Ireland – and they are on the increase, according to the Irish Family Planning Association’s 2014 report. The problem with STIs in Ireland is worsening. There are a number of reasons for this, such as the high price of screening, as well as the stigma around infection.

In their 2014 report, Dr Caitriona Henchion, the Medical Director of the IFPA said: “While STI rates are on the increase, there remains a lack of affordable screening services. The cost of screening in private clinics can be prohibitive, in particular for young people and those on low incomes. This is a public health issue – it is well established that delayed STI diagnosis can increase complications and onward transmission.”

Clearly, Ireland’s problem with STIs extensive. Dr Derek Freedman specialises in diagnosing STIs in his clinic in Ranelagh. He is quick to note that young people are especially at risk of getting infected with STIs.

“Well obviously young people are the people who are most at a stage of life where they are partner seeking,” he says. “There may be frequent partner changes, and even frequent trial runs, and even more in the University atmosphere, alcohol-fuelled runs. So consequently they are people who would be considered very much at risk. Obviously during the time of life when one is a singleton, one is more inclined to meet more people, and, you know, it’s a simple formula, it’s like playing lotto: the more cards you buy, the greater the chances of winning; the more partners you have, the greater the chance is of catching infection.”

There are ways to avoid infection, of course, which Dr Freedman is keen to stress. The key lies in prevention. “Now obviously some people are riskier than others. That’s why it’s so important to always know the person you’re with. Know their name, know their mobile phone number,  [it’s] so important to use a condom to start off relationships, and always give breakfast so at least you know where you’ve been.”

There are a huge number of STIs that affect young people. Youth website SpunOut.ie reports that there are “at least 25 different types of STIs. All of them are serious but most are completely treatable.” Dr Freedman also notes that there is no narrowing it down; the number of STIs is huge, and young people are susceptible to all of them. There are, however, some that are more common.

“They can get any of the STIs,” he says. “Some of the things we see more commonly with young people is chlamydia, we see warts and wart virus infections, but not amongst those who have been vaccinated. We see herpes, particularly with the popularity of oral-genital contact. And we’re seeing now a recrudescence of some of the classical infections, particularly amongst men who have sex with men: gonorrhea, syphilis and of course HIV.”

HIV has, since the ‘AIDS epidemic’ of the 1980s, been known as the most harmful of all STIs. The Word Health Organisation (WHO) report that since the beginning of the epidemic, 78 million people have been infected with the HIV virus, with 39 million dying from it. 35 million people were living with HIV as of the end of 2013.

The attitude amongst young people to HIV is mixed. Often, it is seen as a disease of the past, or one that only affects people in developing countries. Some see it as a disease exclusively associated with gay men. However this is simply not the case, and the illness continues to effect many people across the world. This is also true of Ireland. HIV Ireland was set up in 1987, originally as the Dublin AIDS Alliance. Their 2014 report says that there were 377 new diagnoses of HIV in Ireland in the year. This represents an 11 per cent increase from the previous year. The group most commonly diagnosed with HIV continues to be men who have sex with men (MSM), making up 49 per cent of new diagnoses in 2014. HIV is an illness that everyone must continue to watch.

  “People are much more open about STIs [today]. They realise that like any sport, sex is something with which you can get injured.”

Niall Mulligan, who is the Executive Director of HIV Ireland, stresses that the stigma surrounding HIV continues to be a major issue for the organisation. “HIV related stigma is still prevalent in Ireland,” says Mulligan. “People do not have an understanding of what HIV is and what it means to be living with HIV. People think HIV, despite advances in medication, will inevitably lead to death. There is a lack of understanding about how HIV is transmitted and how it can be managed.”

“HIV infection is often associated with behaviours that are subject to moral judgments (such as homosexuality, drug addiction, prostitution, or promiscuity). Therefore, HIV is viewed as a moral problem rather than a medical condition,” he continues. “A HIV infection is often thought to be the result of personal irresponsibility. HIV Ireland challenges this view as and when we get the opportunity to do so.”

While HIV is still a serious illness, once it is detected and treated, it is much more manageable than people think. “Life has changed dramatically in the past twenty years for people living with HIV in Ireland,” Mulligan says. “Advances in medication mean that a person who is living with HIV can have the same life expectancy as those who are not.” He stresses that this is not quite as easy in rural areas, where those with HIV have to deal with a lack of services.

Mulligan’s advice echoes that of Dr Freedman’s: prevention is preferable to diagnosis. “College students can get informed about HIV and STIs. Anyone who is sexually active should be getting tested regularly and should be using condoms consistently and correctly. Student Unions can promote sexual health amongst their peers which will hopefully dispel the myths and fears associated with HIV and STIs and make STI testing the norm on campus.”

In UCD, there are supports available for students who want to get screened for STIs. UCD has an STI screening clinic as a part of the Student Health Service, which operates on Wednesday and Friday mornings. UCD Students’ Union also offers supports, such as providing free condoms.

The problems around STIs and students are not going away. Students must become more proactive in looking after their sexual health. As Dr Freedman says, “People are much more open about STIs [today]. They realise that like any sport, sex is something with which you can get injured.” With cheaper screenings available, and young people vowing to get checked more often, Ireland’s problem with STIs is likely to improve. However this will not happen without further education and greater awareness of the importance of taking care of your sexual health.