AS HEALTH activists across the world today promote World Aids Day (1 December 2004), safe sex campaigners at St George’s Hospital release new figures which show a 13 per cent rise in the number of HIV infections in the local community.

Data published by the Health Protection Agency reveals the number of HIV patients treated at St George’s rose from 740 in 2002 to nearly 840 in 2003.

Between 2001 and 2002 there was only a 2.6 per cent rise in patients.

The resurgence of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea is causing concern among local sexual health workers who say further work is needed to educate young people about the risks associated with unprotected sex.

Paul Brewer is one of six sexual health advisors at St George’s Hospital.

“We are all concerned by the rise of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections in the local community,” says Paul.

“Left unchecked these infections will probably rise even further.”

“Despite extensive newspaper coverage and numerous health campaigns warning people about the prevalence and dangers of such infections, people still seem to find it difficult to accept the simple message that we need to take precautions when having sex.

“However, we are working closely with colleagues from Wandsworth PCT to help deliver the safer sex message.”

A report published by the Health Protection Agency last week revealed more than six and a half thousand people in the UK were diagnosed with HIV in 2003.

The Agency now estimates 53,000 people in the UK have HIV – a quarter of whom they believe are unaware they have contracted the virus.

HIV (or Human Immunodeficiency Virus) first emerged in the 1980s.

The virus affects the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight off infections.

HIV is passed on through unprotected sex, or by using drugs with non-sterile equipment.

Although there is no vaccine against HIV and no known cure, advances in medicine such as the development of anti-retroviral drugs now mean the virus can be slowed down and its effects delayed.

“Every time you forget to use a condom or ignore basic safer sex measures, you potentially put yourself and your partner in danger,” Brewer continues.

“Unfortunately, that message seems to be lost on some of the younger generation who missed the awareness campaigns for HIV and AIDS in the 1980s.

“People need to start protecting themselves from HIV and other STIs by practising safer sex with all new and casual partners.

“We would urge anyone who thinks they may have been exposed to an infection to go to a clinic for testing, particularly as some infections have no symptoms.”

St George’s Hospital is one of the only teaching hospitals to still offer a sexual health walk-in clinic for people who are afraid they may have caught a sexually transmitted disease.

A team of six sexual health advisors is on hand to provide health education, contact tracing and counselling. The team also works with local schools, prisons and youth organisations to raise awareness of sexual health issues.

South West London is one of the first areas in the country to have set up a sexual health network to improve standards of care across the region.