Minister Varadkar publishes Ireland’s first
National Sexual Health Strategy & Action Plan
Minister for Health Leo Varadkar has published Ireland’s first National Sexual Health Strategy and Action Plan to raise awareness of sexual health and stem the rising incidence of sexually transmitted infections.
The Minister has also approved the appointment of Dr Fiona Lyons as National Clinical Lead for Sexual Health Services. Dr Lyons is a consultant in genitourinary and HIV medicine at St James’s Hospital.
And he confirmed today that funding of €150,000 has been allocated to pilot Dublin’s first-ever free rapid HIV testing service and expand existing services in Cork and Limerick.
GOSHH (Gender, Orientation Sexual Health, HIV) have been providing rapid HIV testing for the last two and a half years and are fully aware of the benefits of receiving an immediate test result.
The additional funding for a community testing pilot scheme will remove testing costs which is often seen as a barrier for people to avail of a test. This means that the testing service will become accessible to more people within the community.
Minister Varadkar said: “We want to remove the stigma around sexual health and promote a more mature and open attitude to sexual health. Our goals are to expand existing services and make it easier for people to get tested, raise awareness of sexual health issues, and improve education by training teachers, youth workers and healthcare professionals.
“The recent increase in sexually transmitted infections means this is a good time to publish the strategy, and we particularly want to target at-risk groups. In the past, sex and sexual health were taboo subjects. Sex is a normal part of life and is essential to our survival as a species. Ultimately, good sexual health is down to personal responsibility but the Government can help by educating people to make better decisions about their sexual health, understand the personal and social cost of having an STI and by improving access to affordable testing and treatment. I particularly want to thank the many organisations who have done pioneering work in this area for many years.”
This is the first time that a nationally co-ordinated approach has been developed to improve the sexual health and wellbeing of the population. The Strategy will run from 2015-2020 and an Action Plan for 2015 and 2016 has been drafted to ensure that work starts immediately.
Key measures in the Strategy include:
- The appointment of Dr Fiona Lyons as HSE National Clinical Lead for Sexual Health Services to ensure they are delivered to the highest clinical standards and that appropriate governance is in place;
- Ensure that everyone who works with young people including parents, teachers and youth workers has access to proper training and back-up resources;
- Raise awareness of the risk of unprotected sex and the importance of early testing and treatment;
- An Action Plan has also been published comprising 18 key targets to be met before the end of 2016.
The most recent data from the Healthy Ireland Survey found worrying evidence of risky sexual behaviour, with 17% of those having sex with someone outside a steady relationship not using any form of contraception. Some 54% of men who had sex with another man did not use a condom. The number of STI notifications has risen from 3,361 in 1995 to 12,753 in 2013, a rise of 279%, and in 2013 some 314 people were diagnosed with HIV. Some of this may be down to increased testing but that cannot explain it alone and the Strategy aims to improve understanding of the situation.
Minister for Education and Skills, Jan O’Sullivan said: “Sexual health education of children in Ireland is primarily the responsibility of parents. It is supported through Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) programmes in primary and post-primary schools, and by youth organisations and NGOs. The State has a responsibility to ensure that children and adolescents receive RSE that is comprehensive in order to help them attain the knowledge, understanding, attitudes and skills required for healthy sexual expression.
“I have prioritised ‘wellbeing’ as a key area of learning in the new Junior Cycle. The Junior Cycle is a critical time in young people’s lives. Wellbeing is about young people feeling confident, happy, healthy and connected. Their learning, through, for example, their RSE programme, will enable them to make positive, responsible decisions relating to their health and wellbeing.”
Dr Fiona Lyons, National Clinical Lead for Sexual Health Services in the HSE said: “I am looking forward to providing leadership and governance to ensure high quality sexual health services for everyone in Ireland. This strategy gives us the opportunity to work together and build further on the great work already in progress towards realizing the vision that everyone in Ireland experiences positive sexual health and wellbeing.”
Overview of Strategy & Action Plan
The Strategy has three goals:
- to ensure that everyone has access to appropriate sexual health education and information;
- to ensure that high quality sexual health services are available and affordable;
- and ensure that good quality data is available to guide the service.
Some of the key measures in the Action Plan to be delivered in the health and education sectors before the end of 2016 include:
- Allocate responsibility for the implementation of the Sexual Health Strategy to the new HSE Sexual Health & Crisis Pregnancy Programme and appoint a National Clinical lead for Sexual Health Services to work within the Programme.
- Support & improve Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE) in secondary schools and on the Youthreach Programme;
- Increase the number of schools using quality RSE resources;
- Conduct a review to designate a National Reference Laboratory for STIs;
- The Department of Health will consider extending the HPV vaccine to adolescent boys and potential at-risk groups;
- Clinical guidance will be developed to support clinical decisions making for STI testing, screening and treatment, and on the appropriate use of antiretroviral therapy in HIV prevention. This will include new standards for home-testing kits;
- STI services will take part in a clinical audit to ensure that quality continues to improve;
- Audit all existing clinical sexual health services, including laboratories, and identify gaps;
- Distribute new guidelines and advice for parents on sexuality and sexual development;
- Set up a national sexual health training programme under the HSE;
- Build on existing co-operation between the HSE and other organisations involved in sexual health;
- Appoint an advisory group to guide the HSE’s Sexual Health Programme.
Rapid HIV testing
Separately, €150,000 has been allocated to launch Dublin’s first free Rapid HIV testing service and to support similar services in Cork and Limerick.
In Dublin the Gay & Lesbian Equality Network will run a one year pilot offering a mix of on-site testing in workplaces, bars and other hubs, and a new testing centre. The funding will also support similar services already operated by the Cork Sexual Health Centre and GOSHH in Limerick.
The pilot project will record and collate key data to evaluate its efficacy.
Students and gay men are two particular groups being targeted by the plan due to increasing infection rates.
Tiernan Brady (GLEN), Minister Leo Varadkar,
Deirdre Seery (Sexual Health Centre, Cork) and Ann Mason (GOSHH) at the Launch
Ann Mason, GOSHH Manager said “We welcome the launch of the National Sexual health Strategy and the 18 priority actions contained in the report. We are particularly excited about €150,000 being made available for a pilot Rapid HIV Testing Scheme within in the community. We will be working The Sexual Health Centre & GLEN to provide community based Rapid HIV tests free of charge.
At GOSHH one of our goals will be that everybody living in the Mid-West will get to know their HIV Status.”
GOSHH will be providing free rapid HIV Tests as part of European HIV Testing Week which will run from November 20-27 and more information is available online at www.goshh.ie or by telephone 061 314354.
The National Sexual Health Strategy 2015 -2020 is available from the Department of Health website, by clicking here.