Public health experts issued a reminder on condom use and testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) after new data suggested a sharp rise in gonorrhoea cases in England since the COVID-19 pandemic.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said provisional data, published on Thursday, indicated that diagnoses of gonorrhoea were 21% higher between January and September 2022 than those reported over the same period in 2019.
Cases of gonorrhoea peaked in England in 2019, and there were 46,541 diagnoses during the first 9 months of that year. However, that number was eclipsed by the 56,327 cases reported in the same period in 2022.
The latest figures indicated there were 7162 diagnoses of gonorrhoea in people of all ages in September 2022, up from 6741 the previous month, and the highest number in records going back to January 2019.
Young people aged 15 to 24 years remained most likely to be diagnosed with STIs due to more frequent changes in sexual partners, the Agency said.
Condom Use and Regular Testing
The UKHSA said it wanted to remind people of the importance of using condoms correctly when having sex with new or casual partners, and of getting tested regularly when having sex without condoms.
Dr Claire Dewsnap, president of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV, said: "By getting tested at least once a year, regardless of whether you're showing symptoms, you can help minimise the risk of catching or passing on STIs when having sex. Delaying access to the right care and treatment also risks developing longer term problems which can be more difficult to address."
Cases of gonorrhoea with resistance to ceftriaxone, the main antibiotic used to treat the infection, have been reported in England in recent years – all in individuals in their 20s. One case of antibiotic-resistant Neisseria gonorrhoeae involved a heterosexual man in London in late 2021, and was followed by three more cases announced in February 2022 involving a woman in London and a heterosexual couple in the Midlands.
Dr Dewsnap said: "While these ceftriaxone-resistant cases remain rare, it is a reminder to all people having condomless sex with new or casual partners to get tested regularly at sexual health services to ensure prompt diagnosis and appropriate treatment."
Dr Thomas Waite, England's deputy chief medical officer, said: "Cases can be diagnosed easily and treated with antibiotics. Testing is simple – samples are quick to take, can be collected at home, and sent off by post for analysis, making early detection accessible to everyone."
In September last year, 32.9% of gonorrhoea cases diagnosed in sexual health services in England were made using testing kits acquired over the internet.