Sexually transmitted diseases have been steadily increasing over the decades, with a current figure of almost 700,000 new diagnoses a year in England alone. There are fears that high levels of sexual activity among young people may be leading to an epidemic.
Syphilis cases have risen by 1,421 per cent in England over the past decade, and diagnoses of chlamydia, the most common sex infection, have risen by 217 per cent since 1995.
With more than 750,000 people contracting STDs last year, the crisis is acute. Sexual health clinics have warned they are overwhelmed and will need to triple their capacity to meet government targets to treat patients within 48 hours.
The numbers of young people affected by sexual disease stabilised or fell during the 1980s and early 1990s but have risen again since Labour came to power. The highest rates of chlamydia are in teenage girls between 16 and 19, and among men and women aged between 20 and 24.
It is the startling rise in chlamydia that has alarmed Labour ministers the most. With few recognisable symptoms, and affecting both men and women, chlamydia can cause infertility and ectopic pregnancy if left untreated. Cases of the disease have risen by over 200 per cent in England over the past decade, with health professionals warning that sexually active young adults are contributing to its spread.
With many men not realising they can contract the infection, they are passing it on to women, some of whom have already been treated with antibiotics.
The Department of Health is so worried by the rapid increase in the number of cases it has launched a national screening programme to try to detect the illness, focusing particularly on men. They plan to send mobile testing units to football clubs, prisons and army barracks to test men for the infection.
And with sexual health clinics warning they cannot accommodate demand among sexually active young people for testing, ministers are turning to new technology and the high street to deliver diagnoses.
A pilot at Boots, which began in November, has allowed 16- to 24-year-olds to take home free chlamydia testing kits. It has proved such a success, with more than 6,000 kits handed out, that ministers want to extend the concept of over-the-counter testing nationwide.
The Department of Health is considering using other outlets, including supermarkets and petrol stations, to encourage the public to test for diseases.
The idea is to make testing for STDs a normal part of personal health checks - as normal as ensuring that you are eating five pieces of fruit a day, according to Caroline Flint, the public health minister.
Ms Flint, who has managed to extract hundreds of millions of pounds from the Treasury to fund the fight against STDs, believes that diagnosis outside clinics will cut queues and allow those who have tested positive to be treated more quickly, and will ultimately save the NHS money.