While sexually transmitted diseases are nowadays treatable and no longer a death sentence as was the case of HIV infection back in the 1980s, carrying a sexually transmitted infection is not something nice.
Sex is a normal life activity and we cannot keep ignoring the fact that most people are sexually active; some are even promiscuous and some are more at risk than others of getting infected or infecting a partner with one of the multitude of diseases that are transmitted sexually.
Unfortunately, in 2021, Malta topped the list of HIV infections per capita in the European Union. Data released by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the World Health Organisation Regional Office for Europe shows that the local rate for HIV transmission in 2020 was that of 15.9 per 100,000 persons. This data indicates that, since 2011, the rate of transmission of HIV has doubled. This data, of course, relates to people who have been tested. Others might carry the virus without even knowing.
Thirteen years have passed since Malta adopted its first sexual health policy. This was espoused under a Nationalist administration, which many perceived to be conservative. Yet, after 10 years of Labour administration, with all its progressive statements and manifestos, Malta lacks a coherent and updated sexual health policy.
While I mentioned the statistics for HIV, this is not the only sexually transmitted disease. Other infections, such as gonorrhoea, chlamydia, syphilis and hepatitis, are as infectious and cruel as HIV. Unless treated, they can spiral out of control. Some of these diseases do not exhibit any symptoms and carriers can keep infecting other people without knowing.
Unfortunately, some people engage in dangerous sexual practices. Yet, the state is obliged to offer a good service at the Genitourinary (GU) Clinic to prevent, as much as possible, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Therefore, in 2023, patients should not expect to wait for six months to get an appointment at the GU Clinic (unless there are symptoms). As already mentioned, many carriers of such infections do not have symptoms and in six months can infect a multitude of people.
I am not condoning dangerous or illicit sexual practices. Neither am I here to judge. But we know that some people are engaging in group sex, chemical sex parties and changing partners.
In 2021, Malta topped the list of HIV infections per capita in the European Union- Graziella Attard Previ
Some might argue that the state is not obliged to help people who put their health at risk. I beg to differ. The state assists people who smoke, who drink excessive alcohol or who engage in extreme sport. The keyword here should be prevention.
Prevention is better than cure.
Thus, the GU Clinic should be available for longer hours and during the weekends so that people can just drop in and get tested. Sex is no longer taboo and neither should the prevention of diseases be.
The government has been promising GU services in the community. In 2021, it was reported that GU clinics were to be opened in Marsaxlokk and Mellieħa. This proposal was repeated in the Budget speech, last October. However, so far, this has not materialised.
Besides, the preventive medicine known as PEP – post-exposure prophylaxis, a very expensive drug that needs to be taken within a few hours of a risky sexual encounter to prevent HIV infection – is only being given if the sexual encounter was not consensual.
Finally, I would like to remind the health minister that the Labour manifesto also promised to provide pre-exposure prophylaxis medicine for free. This was a commendable proposal that needs to be implemented.
The GU Clinic has an important role in safeguarding the sexual health of our people. The clinic offers a wide range of services, thanks to the professional and committed health professionals that work there. But much more needs to be done by the government.
The changes in lifestyle and the increase in our population have drastically increased the workload of the GU Clinic. It is high time that more resources are made available to it.
Graziella Attard Previ is the Nationalist Party’s spokesperson on equality, children’s rights and human rights.