Women Face Infertility As Sexual Health Promise Broken By Labour

Thousands of young women are facing infertility because of Labour’s broken promises on sexual health, alarming new figures suggest. Ministers have failed to implement a pledge made in 2004 to introduce a nationwide screening programme for chlamydia – now the most common sexually transmitted disease – by this month, the Daily Mail has learned.

The latest figures show that less than half of all primary care trusts are screening women. Sexual health clinics are struggling to hit government targets because they lack money.

Research suggests that 60 per cent have diverted money earmarked for sexual health into other areas.

The Department of Health now says it hopes to ensure 100 per cent coverage for chlamydia screening by the end of the year, despite a pledge in a White Paper published three years ago to have it in place by March.

Sexual health is today the worst it has been since records began, with the number of sexually transmitted infections running at more than 700,000 a year.

Chlamydia has become the most common sexually transmitted infection in the UK, with one in ten women under 25 suffering from it.

The disease – known as the ‘silent infection’ as it often has no symptoms – has risen five-fold since 1995, with 90,000 cases reported every year.

The Government has been criticised for failing to tackle the crisis, with doctors saying sexual health is being sidelined in favour of other priorities.

If left untreated, the infection can lead to infertility and an increased chance of a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy outside the womb.

Critics say measures including promoting contraceptives such as the morning-after pill are also fuelling the epidemic of infections.

According to the latest figures, just 43 per cent or primary care trusts were screening for chlamydia last December – suggesting little improvement since June 2006, when the number was 36 per cent.

A Parliamentary answer from health minister Caroline Flint admits that now the Government expects to see 100 per cent coverage at some point ‘during 2007’.

Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said the ‘sluggish’ progress in extending chlamydia screening threw even the Government’s extended deadline into doubt.

“It is no surprise that the NHS has failed to implement the chlamydia screening programme as promised, when almost half the organisations required to fund it have fallen into debt in this financial year,” he said.

“However, cutting back on important measures like chlamydia screening is a false economy. If left untackled, today’s sufferers will be tomorrow’s patients requiring expensive fertility treatment.

“Labour’s failed short term approach to sexually transmitted infections and other public health issues like obesity will make the NHS financially unsustainable in the long-run.

“We need much more long-term thinking. This is precisely why David Cameron and I have called for public health budgets need to be ring-fenced.”

The chlamydia screening programme has anyway been criticised by the Commons health committee for its “limited nature”.

When fully implemented, it will cover only 18- to 25-year-old women, though doctors say people should be screened up to the age of 30.

Mr Lansley also accused the Government of failing to deliver a promised £50 million advertising campaign to tackle the rise in sexually transmitted infections.

Two years after the campaign was pledged, it has not been launched. The Health Department has launched a £4 million advertising campaign encouraging the use of condoms – leaving £46 million missing.

Former health minister Lord Warner admitted late last year that the remaining £46m was “stored carefully in the coffers of the NHS”.

Expenditure on sexual health campaigns between 1997 and 2005 totalled £53 million, whereas in the eight years leading up to 1997, it was £122.28 million.

A Health Department spokesman said: “The national screening chlamydia programme is an important part of the Government’s sexual health strategy.

“Screening volumes have already increased from just over 18,000 in year one to more than 104,000 in year three.

“By the end of last year almost half of primary care trusts had started screening, covering 35 programme areas.

“This was always going to be a challenging target, but we expect to see full national coverage during 2007.”