Gonorrhoea cases jump by 25% in one year as government 'safe sex' campaign is criticised
There were almost 21,000 new cases of the disease in 2011, up from just under 17,000 in the preceding year

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UPDATED:

12:59 GMT, 12 September 2012

The government's campaign to persuade teenagers to have 'safe sex' has today been criticised after it emerged that new diagnoses of gonorrhoea have jumped by 25 per cent in one year.

There were almost 21,000 new cases of the disease in 2011, up from just under 17,000 in the preceding year, according to the latest Health Protection Agency (HPA) figures.

Most new sexually transmitted disease (STI) infections were in gay men, but gonorrhoea bucked that trend as 57 per cent of new cases were in people aged between 15 and 24.

On the rise: New diagnoses of gonorrhoea have jumped by 25 per cent in one year

On the rise: New diagnoses of gonorrhoea have jumped by 25 per cent in one year

Dr Gwenda Hughes, head of STI surveillance at the HPA, said: 'The 25 per cent increase in new gonorrhoea diagnoses in 2011, plus high rates of repeat infection and co-infection with other STIs, shows more must be done to encourage safer sexual behaviour through health promotion and ensuring easy access to sexual health services and screening.'

However, following the publication of new prescribing guidelines last year, GUM clinics are succcessfully achieving their screening targets.

As recommended by the British Association of Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH), nearly all patients, 93 per cent, received ceftriaxone first-line treatment, up 53 per cent from 2010.

Professor Cathy Ison, leading the HPA gonorrhoea resistance surveillance programme, said: 'We were pleased to see such a rapid change in prescribing practice and are cautiously optimistic about what the 2011 surveillance data show.

'Ensuring resistant strains do not persist and spread remains a major public health concern.

WHAT IS GONORRHOEA

Gonorrhoea is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoea.

Almost 21,000 new cases of gonorrhoea were reported in the UK in 2011. Men and women aged 16-24 are most affected.

Symptoms, such as pain urinating, usually appear a few weeks after contracting the disease.

The condition is diagnosed via a urine test for men and a cervix swab for women.

It is treated with antibiotics given as a pill or an injection.

If left untreated long-term it can spread to a woman's reproductive organs and cause pelvic inflammatory disease. This in turn can lead to ectopic pregnancy and infertility.

If left untreated in men it can cause a painful infection in the testicles and prostate gland, which can lead to reduced fertility.

'It is more important than ever we diagnose gonorrhoea promptly, adhere to treatment guidelines and identify and manage any cases of potential treatment failure effectively. If not, the threat of untreatable gonorrhoea in the future is very real.'

The HPA today said in a statement: 'To combat the continuing high rates of STI transmission in England, and the growing risk of gonorrhoea treatment resistance, it is essential to always use a condom when having sex with casual and new partners, and to get tested regularly.'

Last October, the HPA warned of the 'very real threat' that gonorrhoea could become incurable.

Gonorrhoea – the second most common STI in the UK – has developed resistance to a type of antibiotic that has only been used to treat it for the last five years.

This 'alarming decrease' in the effectiveness of cefixime means a new, stronger treatment regime must be put in place, the HPA said.

In some cases, patients have not responded to treatment on cefixime.

HPA experts said the STI has been easy to treat for the last 70 years but the organism that causes the infection – Neisseria gonorrhoeae – has an 'unusual ability to adapt itself' and has gained resistance to a growing list of antibiotics, from penicillin to tetracyclines, ciprofloxacin and now cefixime.

Sexual health doctors are now being told to use a combination of two drugs – ceftriaxone, a more powerful antibiotic than cefixime, which is delivered by injection, and azithromycin, which is given orally.