Why scientists think this year will be the ‘summer of STIs’

Summer of STIs - Tom Merton/Getty
Summer of STIs - Tom Merton/Getty

After 12 months of dreary restrictions, it is little wonder that many of us could be cautiously looking forward to a 1960s-style ‘summer of love’ with outdoor parties, live music… and lots of sex. But one of the unfortunate side effects of post-lockdown hedonism is a greater chance of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

Experts are particularly worried that a more potent strain of gonorrhoea will take hold this summer. According to the Sexual Health Hub, it is already the second most common STI in the UK, after chlamydia. Although it is most common among the 20-24 age group, with a rate of 269.5 per 100,000 of the population, it can strike at any time in life.

And according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the bacteria that causes gonorrhoea has built up a resistance to the antibiotic azithromycin – which is commonly used to treat chest and sinus infections and has been used over the past year to prevent “confection of hospitalised patients”. The WHO warns that this “super gonorrhoea” could be untreatable, as the use of antibiotics during the pandemic continues to fuel its mutation.

Claudia Estcourt from the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH), says that although the organisation hasn’t seen azithromycin causing cases of super gonorrhoea yet, she acknowledges that antimicrobial resistance has been “a concern within STI medicine” for many years, “particularly for the bacteria which cause gonorrhoea and for Mycoplasma genitalium (M gen).”

She adds that because of reduced numbers of people coming for STI testing in lockdown, the figures for 2020 will show that reported infections have fallen, but they are predicted to rise again in 2021. “This is largely due to the fact we have been unable to test as much as we would have liked, as well as people’s changed (reduced) sexual behaviour. As we get back to normal, we will probably return to what we were seeing in 2019 with rises in chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis in some groups,” she says.

Indeed, this crisis was brewing long before the pandemic. Data from the State of the Nation report from the Terrence Higgins Trust and BASHH revealed that in February last year, cases of gonorrhoea had risen by 249 per cent in the last decade, with cases of syphilis also up 165 per cent. In the past year, experts say the number of people visiting sexual health clinics dropped by 85 per cent, meaning many STI cases could be going undiagnosed.

Since last year, single people have had significant limitations on their sexual freedom. Early on in March 2020, the Government imposed strict rules that couples who didn’t live together, and singletons, couldn’t visit each other’s houses for sex. This was later echoed by the deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries, who said that couples living separately should either stay apart or “test the strength of their relationship” and move in together.

In September, the rules eased slightly to allow people in ‘established relationships’ to meet up for sex. But even now that restriction was lifted, caution is still advised for singletons. “We know from surveys that over the last year the number of people having sex with new sexual partners has greatly reduced compared to what we would expect in normal times. I’m sure many people will be keen to resume dating and sex with new partners once restrictions ease, whether or not they have been vaccinated,” says Estcourt.

This increased sense of sexual freedom might be heightened by the development of the vaccine, or people believing they have immunity because they have already contracted the virus. But while your chances of catching coronavirus will (hopefully) diminish as time goes on, your chances of catching an STI won’t.

So how can we stay safe? Condoms are the answer: they are 98 per cent effective at protecting against most STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhoea. “It is really important to think about protecting yourself from STIs including HIV, as well as Covid, and to remember that using condoms will greatly reduce your risk of sexually transmitted infection,” says Estcourt. “Always get yourself checked if you develop any symptoms which may suggest an STI, such as genital or anal discharge, rash or spots, and contact your local sexual health service for advice on how to get a check-up.”

STI testing is available during lockdown but as with many medical services in the pandemic, the format has slightly changed. Many services are offering a phone call or online consultation first, to discuss symptoms and appropriate options before arranging an in-person clinic visit if needed. Alternatively, you can order postal STI tests that check for chlamydia and gonorrhoea, although companies are warning that they may be late arriving due to delays with the postal service.