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Women avoiding STI tests "due to recession" – warning

Sexual health experts fear people strapped for cash are avoiding vital screening for sexually transmitted infections.

Dublin Well Woman Centres said the recession was to blame for a drop in the numbers attending STI check-ups, as well as visits for emergency contraception and fertility issues.

Alison Begas, chief executive, said 2010 was the first year in the last decade that there was a decline in numbers across all areas.

"We can only assume that people are now postponing sexual health checks and other associated visits because they are increasingly feeling the strain of the recession," Ms Begas said.

"To this end, for some people, sexual health services are being considered as a luxury or secondary outlay that can no longer be budgeted for."

The number of people who attended Well Woman centres for full STI screening last year totalled 1,600, compared to almost 3,000 in 2007.

Well Woman centres charge €120 for full STI testing, or €200 for a couple.

General consultations at the three centres are charged at €55 and €35 for a general nurse consultation.

The organisation said that while emergency contraception is now available over-the-counter in pharmacies, there was still a decline in the numbers attending for the service in 2010 before the roll-out.

Ms Begas said emigration could be a factor for the fall-off in numbers.

But she added: "For those that are still here we know that from our own experience that when they phone us to ask about appointments or tests, the questions we're being asked is: 'If I need that extra test, how much will that be?'

"I'm getting the sense that everybody is managing every penny."

The organisation warned putting off sexual health appointments can have serious implications.

"Sexually transmitted infections can produce few symptoms but, if left untreated, can result in complex and severe health implications for people, including infertility," Ms Begas said.

"If tests are conducted in the early stages, problems can be identified and treated cheaply and effectively."

Well Woman also noted a decrease in the numbers attending for fertility visits.

Since computerised records began in 2002, the numbers attending for fertility investigations increased every year, and 2010 represented the first year where there was a decline in the numbers.

"We have always attributed the rise in fertility visits to the fact that, increasingly, couples are delaying childbirth. The drop-off in the numbers attending for fertility visits in 2010 is, most likely, another symptom of the recession informing people's spending," said Ms Begas.

The numbers attending for cervical screening in 2010 was broadly in line with previous years, although there has been an increase in those aged between 30 and 60, and a drop in the number of less-at-risk younger women.

Well Woman also examined 12,000 chlamydia test results from 2008 to 2010, with the highest prevalence among those aged under 20.