SEX HEALTH CRISIS AS INFECTIONS ON THE RISE; INVESTIGATION: IRELAND IN THE GRIP OF AN STI EPIDEMIC 341 People Diagnosed with HIV - a 7% Increase Hundreds More Catch Chlamydia and Gonorrhoea

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Byline: EXCLUSIVE BY MARIE KIERANS

A SILENT sexual disease epidemic is sweeping the country as the number of harmful infections sky-rockets. Frightening figures for the first six weeks of this year show a sharp rise in most sexually transmitted infections, the Irish Sunday Mirror can reveal.

Data from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre shows a surge in cases of chlamydia, up by 142 to 736 compared to last year.

Experts have also warned that young people are ignorant of the risks of deadly HIV as many were not even born when it came to prominence in the 1980s.

There has been an alarming jump in the number of HIV infections, from 28 to 44. And the rate of herpes is also on the increase, up from 85 to 139.

The statistics follow damning research warning that cases of gonorrhoea have risen a third in recent years - with the incidence rate at a record high.

Between 2011 and 2012 there was a 33% spike in gonorrhoea cases, with young men and women aged 17 to 29 identified as being most at-risk among the 1,110 cases diagnosed.

And the gonorrhoea crisis shows no sign of abating, with 167 cases reported in the first six weeks of 2014, up 29 on the previous year.

iceberg The latest in-depth information on STI trends reveals over 70% of all cases in 2012 were in people aged under 30, with 59% in the 19-20 years age group and 11.3% in those 19 and under.

Almost 13,000 STDs were recorded during 2012, but that figure is just the tip of the iceberg.

A further 341 people were newly diagnosed with HIV, a 7% increase compared to 2011.

Experts have warned that many people are going about their daily business unaware that they are carrying a potentially lethal infection.

Excessive drinking, a failure to use protection and an increase in casual sex has been blamed for the epidemic.

A sexual health specialist at the coalface of Ireland's STI emergency revealed that in the month of January alone he diagnosed four patients with HIV.

And he warned that despite what many people think, it is not just gay men being told they have the condition.

Dr Shay Keating, who runs a clinic at Dublin's Harold's Cross Surgery, said: "It never happened here before. It is very upsetting. One of the patients was a heterosexual male. There's no shame in producing a condom.

"It'd be much worse having to ring somebody up to tell them that you've chlamydia or some other infection."

Dr Keating said that many of today's young people were ignorant about the risks posed by HIV.

"The young sexually active weren't even born when there was the whole strong media 'don't die of ignorance' campaign surrounding HIV/AIDs during the 1980s," he added.

And Dr Derek Freedman, a leading expert in STIs, said that services were struggling to cope with demand.

"Certainly in the Guide Clinic at St James's Hospital (Dublin) we have been inundated with cases," he told the Irish Sunday Mirror. "It has been extremely difficult to cope with the workload."

He added that the numbers flocking to the screening clinic had been "building up steadily" over the autumn. "It was one of the first signs of the economic upturn, because when people are more at ease in their financial constraints, they go and party," Dr Freedman said.

"The vast majority of cases we would see would be people who have been risk-taking because of alcohol.

"Sometimes they have so much alcohol, they can't remember if they had sex. Basically, if you're looking for quality sex, you need to look for quality drinking."

The gonorrhea outbreak, he stressed, was not confined to men who have sex with men. Dr Freedman, who founded the Society for the Study of Sexually Transmitted Diseases in Ireland, said: "It's spreading out to the wider community. …