‘Binge drinking’ linked to chlamydia in women
Alcohol has been shown to be a principal risk factor for chlamydia in young women in the UK. A study by Valerie McMunn and Woody Caan of Anglia Ruskin University of over 200 young women aged 16-25 found that three factors were associated with increased risk of chlamydia: alcohol comprised two of them. The two alcohol factors were the age of first drink and binge drinking. The non-alcohol factor was the number of lifetime sexual partners.
Chlamydia has become the most common sexually transmitted infection in UK women aged 16-25. Concerns about the long-term harm to women’s wellbeing, fertility and pregnancy and also about infant health have led the Department of Health to implement a screening programme for chlamydia. At the same time, alcohol consumption in adolescent girls has been rising and there has been, in particular, a growth in episodic heavy consumption – binge drinking – which has led, amongst other things, to a doubling in the number of intoxicated women attending accident and emergency departments.
The study, of women attending a family planning clinic in the East of England was also designed to elucidate the relationship between hazardous drinking and unsafe sex.
The mean age of the women in the sample was 19 years. Two particularly striking findings were the number of sexual partners reported by a high proportion of the women, and the amount of alcohol consumed per night.
The number of sexual partners ranged from 1 to 30, the average being 6.8. 20.2% of the women reported more than one sexual partner at the same time. Women being treated for chlamydia reported more lifetime sexual partners than those who had never been treated.
The number of sexual partners correlated with all the alcohol parameters, in particular the number of drinking days per week and the total amount consumed. Three quarters of the women reported a pattern of binge drinking, consuming 5 or more units on a ‘typical’ night out. However, levels of consumption on ‘heavy’ nights out were far higher, up to 50 units.
Women being treated for Chlamydia reportedly drank a median of 15 units on a ‘heavy’ night, compared to 12 units for those who had not been treated. Women being treated for chlamydia also reported beginning to drink on average 1.2 years earlier than those not being treated.
The authors suggest that the increased risk of Chlamydia associated with alcohol use may have been mediated by several factors including reduced condom use, sex with strangers and exposure to coercive sex.
The implication of the study for policymakers is that binge drinking is not an isolated phenomenon but occurs in relation to many other behaviours involving both individuals and social networks.
A challenge to the research community is to discover the links in early adolescence (before age 16) between onset of drinking, early sexual behaviour and exposure to sexually transmitted infections.
Alcohol Alert is published by The Institute of Alcohol Studies Issue 2, 2007. www.ias.org.uk