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Health: Syphilis

Volume 687: debated on Tuesday 21 November 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What action they will take in light of the Health Protection Agency’s report charting the rise in cases of syphilis.

My Lords, the Government have already made tackling the increase in sexually transmitted infections, including syphilis, a priority. We have just launched a hard-hitting new sexual health campaign aimed at 18 to 24 year-olds that contains strong messages about using condoms. Improving access to genito-urinary clinics is one of the six key priorities for the NHS this year. We have also funded syphilis prevention work and innovative community testing pilots for syphilis and HIV.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his predictable reply to the shocking statistics. Does he accept that the Government, by the kind of materials that they have promoted for use in schools and clubs, have encouraged greater sexual activity among the young and are now reaping what they have sown? The emphasis has been on “how to” and not on “how not to”. So will he agree that “just say no” should form a major part of any campaign alerting young people to the dangers to their health of indulging in casual sex?

My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness ought to look at the figures a little more carefully before she charges into this area. In four of the SHA areas, the rate of increase decreased between 2005 and 2004. So things have got better in the rate of increase. We are also seeing a drop in gonorrhoea cases in some parts of the country. The noble Baroness and her colleagues who are tut-tutting alongside her ought to think about whether sex education is actually effective, and “just say no” has not been shown to be effective. We are trying to ensure that we have effective campaigns that get at the target groups where we need to improve awareness and change behaviour.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of, and how can he explain, the pending closure of six clinics for sexually transmitted diseases in east Yorkshire? Does he agree that those people who are at risk of sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis, chlamydia, HIV and many others, will not want to go to their GPs?

My Lords, I do not have the information about the six clinics that the noble Baroness mentioned, but I will certainly look into that and write to her. I said in my Answer that we have made improving access to genito-urinary medicine clinics one of the six key priorities for the NHS this year, and we have put a very large sum of extra money into the NHS for sexual health services this year.

My Lords, what steps is the department taking to ensure that money given to sexual health services in primary care trusts is being used for sexual health services?

My Lords, I repeat to my noble friend what I said earlier. We have put more money in. It is a requirement that there are plans for spending that money in PCT local development plans. It is for strategic health authorities to monitor the performance of primary care trusts in this area and to ensure that their performance continues to improve the sexual health services in their area.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the £4 million advertising campaign. In fact, his department promised £50 million to be spent on advertising sexual health messages to young people. The success of any advertising campaign depends on the length of time for which it runs and the extent to which messages are repeated over and over again. Can he confirm that the full amount of £50 million will be released over the next two years?

My Lords, we will have to wait and see how well this campaign works. When we launch new campaigns in this area of sexual health, we always have to monitor their effectiveness and we must not be afraid to change the campaigns if we learn from experience that changes are necessary.

My Lords, is the noble Lord satisfied with the standards of recognition of syphilis by the standard general practitioner? If not, what is being done to encourage a higher level of awareness by GPs?

My Lords, a lot of work has been put in generally with all forms of primary care health professionals to improve their awareness around sexual health issues. I could not claim to know how many of the 30,000 or so GPs that we have in this country are as totally up to speed as we would like. Certainly, efforts have been made in this area and will continue to be made.

My Lords, could I put the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, in a slightly different way? As she indicated, two years ago the then Secretary of State for Health announced a new £50 million sexual health campaign. On 11 November this year, the Minister for Public Health launched a £4 million sexual health campaign. What happened to the other £46 million?

My Lords, it is stored carefully in the coffers of the NHS. As the noble Earl is aware, the NHS is a very cost-conscious organisation, which tries to ensure that it uses its money wisely. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, we have to evaluate each of these campaigns to see how effective they are and then consider the next steps to be taken and the money to be spent on new and alternative campaigns.

My Lords, what place do monogamous sexual relationships have in the Government’s sexual health campaign?

My Lords, the Government’s sexual health campaign assumes not perfection in human behaviour. It tries to take account of the realities of life for a very diverse population. We have tried to target our health education and our services in the most effective way to meet that diversity.