Poor Sexual Health Must Be Addressed

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Helping people making informed choices about their sexual health and reducing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases will be the key focus of a new strategy.

Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey, said that the draft Sexual Health Promotion Strategy, which was presented to the Assembly Health Committee today, pointed to the need for everyone in society to play their part in promoting good sexual health. The strategy will be published shortly.

He said: "Our sexual health is very poor. We are seeing increasing numbers of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and high rates of teenage pregnancies - some 147 births to teenagers under 17 years of age in 2006 alone.

"Teenage pregnancies are costing the economy more than ?28million each year when you take into account healthcare costs, lost tax revenue, and benefits. This is not just about economic costs, there is an emotional price which cannot be costed but can have a significant impact on the well-being of those affected.

"This strategy focuses on four areas: prevention, training, services and research. It recognises the need for positive and accurate information about sexual health and emphasises the importance of respect and responsibility.

"Young people in particular, cannot make informed choices about their sexual health unless they have knowledge. Parents and carers must also have the skills to educate and inform young people.

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"This is not about encouraging young people to have sex, rather it is about all of us being able to have open and thoughtful discussions about sexual health to help us make the right, and the best choices."

Research into the sexual behaviour of the population will be another key element of the strategy, said Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride.

Dr McBride said: "At the moment we only have limited information about the sexual behaviour of our population, which makes it difficult in developing strategies and services to improve our sexual health.

"Of course, one of the main challenges is attitudes to sexual behaviour. Sexual health is a controversial subject in Northern Ireland. Many people have deeply-held opinions about the best approaches, others are simply too embarrassed to discuss it openly. This has to change. We cannot ignore the rising rates of STIs - this is a major healthcare issue.

"In 2006 there were 9,590 STIs diagnosed, of which around 7,100 were new diagnoses. STIs can have long-term effects on people's lives, with possible complications such as infertility, ectopic pregnancy, cervical cancer and other genital cancers.

"There are strong links between social deprivation and sexual ill-health. This must be addressed. Harassment and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation must also be addressed.

"I have spent a considerable part of my professional career working on these issues and know only too well the physical and mental harm which poor sexual health can cause. To improve our sexual health will require a concerted effort by government, community groups, school, youth services and the health and social care sector. We must ensure everyone has the right skills and knowledge to help them make the best choices."

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