STI rates on rise among middle-aged

OLIVIA CARVILLE
Last updated 05:00 07/10/2012

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Teenagers are likely to be better informed about sexual health than middle-aged New Zealanders, who are catching sexually transmitted infections (STIs) at increasingly high rates.

The trend could be linked to a rise in divorce rates, an increase in infidelity or a new age of online dating, experts suggest.

Ignorance about safe sex and poor condom use among 40 to 50-year-old New Zealanders could also be blamed for the rise in STIs, Christchurch's Sexual Health Clinic physician Heather Young said.

The clinic had recently seen an increase in herpes and genital warts in its middle-aged patients.

Young said 40 to 50-year-olds leaving long-term relationships and re-entering the dating scene with an ignorant perception of safe sex could have sparked the climb in STIs.

A 17-year-old who had just completed a sexual education course through school would be “much more informed” than the average middle-aged Kiwi, she said.

There was also anecdotal evidence of "very poor condom use" with the 40-plus age group which was a "major concern".

A survey recently conducted by 50-plus community website grownups.co.nz found more than 78 per cent of respondents never used condoms when having sex.

Middle-aged women fresh on the dating scene may not feel "empowered" enough to insist on condoms with a new sexual partner because they had "never been educated" in doing so, Young said.

Adults "three decades on from their sexual health classes in school", and now using the internet to find new sexual partners, need to be re-educated.

"Online dating is a huge platform for getting new sexual partners and comes with a high risk of STIs. The rate of partner change, availability of partners and anonymity has completely changed our social network and leaves people exposed to all sorts," Young said.

Christchurch GP Dr Pippa Mackay agreed there had been a “societal shift” towards re-partnering in the 40 to 50-year-old New Zealand demographic which could have sparked the rise in STIs.

“There's a lot of people I have cared for in the past 25 years who seem to be separating and divorcing and I continue to look after them while they hook up with other people,” she said.

“Women in their 40s have come in to see me to go back on the pill when I know their husband had a vasectomy years ago. Going on the pill may stop them getting pregnant, but it doesn't necessarily stop them getting anything else.”

Twenty years ago Mackay “virtually saw nothing” of STIs in this age group, but she said the figure was starting to climb.

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The GP also questioned whether she was only seeing the tip of the iceberg because long-term patients may feel more comfortable seeking STI treatment from other GPs or medical centres for privacy.

"I have a good relationship with my patients but I suspect some people might not go to their own GPs for that kind of thing. They may go somewhere more anonymous."

Family Planning's national medical adviser Dr Christine Roke said the rise in STIs in the 40 to 50 age group could be because of increased testing.

"We are diagnosing STIs more often than we used to but part of that may be that there is much more testing going on now," she said.

Environmental Science and Research national figures show an increase in genital herpes from 2010 to 2011 in people aged above 40, but a slight decrease in genital wart cases.

There were 153 genital herpes cases reported from sexual health clinics in 2011 and 132 in 2010. And there were 265 genital warts cases reported in 2011 and 273 in 2010.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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