Panorama: Love Hurts
Sunday 16 October 2005
22:15 BST, BBC One
A survey for the BBC's Panorama programme has found that over a quarter of all sexual health clinics in the UK are currently unable to treat patients needing urgent attention within the recommended 48 hours.
Researchers also found that 18% of clinics were using restrictive systems, making it more difficult to book an appointment. Waiting times have grown so much that one clinic was taking bookings nine weeks in advance.
One of the most senior sexual health clinicians in the country, Professor George Kinghorn, told Panorama that it amounts to a "public health crisis". Gill Bell, Britain's only nurse consultant in sexual health advising, described how trying to get seen has become "the survival of the fittest."
The programme reveals the scale of the sexually-transmitted infection (STI) epidemic in the UK and shows a nation whose sexual health is in rapid decline, due to big increases in the infection rates for some of the most common STIs.
It also shows how the rate of infection appears to be overwhelming our sexual health service. In the last decade recorded cases of gonorrhoea and HIV have more than doubled, syphilis is resurgent (up 1500%), and the number of sexually active people under 25 infected with Chlamydia is now thought to number just under 500,000.
Some genito-urinary (GU) clinics are turning away new patients; most have closed down their walk-in services and others are making it increasingly tough to get an appointment. Some clinics now require people to ring during a narrow time window, making it a fight for appointments for some - other clinics simply refuse to accept new patients.
In one case the Panorama team were told, by a member of staff at one clinic, to complain to their MP about the situation:
Clinic: There's no provision for sexual health in London from Friday afternoon to Monday morning.
Caller: Nowhere at all?
Clinic: Nowhere. Nowhere. And if you think it's scandalous as I do, write to your MP.
The programme follows the story of several patients seeking treatment for STIs, including the case of 24-year-old Sian, who developed Chlamydia over two years ago and has been struggling to get pregnant ever since.
The Panorama team followed her in to the operating theatre when her surgeon, Professor Bill Ledger, discovers that her tubes are blocked with adhesions; and is with her when she learns - just hours afterwards - if she will ever be able to conceive naturally again. Professor Ledger estimates that 100 women a year, in Sheffield alone, are undergoing such operations.
In the next few months the government is due to unveil a £50 million advertising campaign warning of the dangers of unsafe sex - the biggest sexual health campaign since the portentous "Don't Die of Ignorance" initiative in 1986.
Panorama's "Love Hurts" is broadcast on Sunday 16 October 2005 at 22:15BST on BBC One. It is also available online at bbc.co.uk/panorama in broadband, live and on demand.