CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/SEXUAL HEALTH - Increasing levels of sexual infection prompted a £2m drive, Camilla Palmer says

What's the most natural thing for humans to do, apart from watch football, eat and sleep? Have sex. And what appears to be one of the most challenging briefs for an ad agency and its media partner? To encourage us all to have safer sex and prevent the spread of disease.

The Department of Health last week appointed Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners and Naked to reduce the number of people who become infected by sexually transmitted diseases including HIV and Aids.

Their appointment comes as the rate of infection for Aids (and all other sexually transmitted infections) is soaring to worrying heights, enough for the Government to invest £47 million in clinics, staff and treatment.

£2 million will be spent on communicating the dangers of STIs and HIV.

The last is arguably well overdue. It is now 16 years since TBWA's "tombstone TV ad introduced HIV and Aids to a largely ignorant population - and the £20 million put up by the Government to back it has not been repeated since. It has been largely left to the Terence Higgins Trust and others to keep the message alive.

In 2001 alone, more than 4,000 new cases of HIV were reported, with the Medical Society for the Study of Venereal Diseases estimating that by the end of 2003, the infection rate will have soared 26 per cent to 30,000 cases. Treatable infections such as syphilis and gonorrhoea are also on the increase - DoH figures show cases seen in clinics now stand at one million, a number which has doubled in the past decade.

The statistics bear comparison to those of 1986, when the number of cases doubled every ten months to a total of 3,000. However, both the DoH and the two agencies stress that the scare tactics of the 80s will not be repeated.

Clearly though, something needs to be done. Naked and DLKW claim that young adults between 18 and 30 years old are well aware of HIV and STIs but need to be reminded about the details - and the risks of infection. The DoH adds that some younger people will be less aware, having been born after the first HIV and Aids awareness campaigns broke.

Greg Delaney, the chairman of DLKW, refuses to divulge specific details of the £2 million autumn campaign, but says it's important that any campaign does not sound like the voice of the Government. "We need to talk to the target audience in places and in ways which really relate to the way they live, he says. "We don't want to patronise them with messages they're not going to listen to, but there is a real concern that people who grew up in the shadow of HIV simply aren't aware of the risks of having unprotected sex. Indeed, the DoH confirms that such basic information as the need for condoms and the effect of STIs will be tackled in the campaign.

It has also become increasingly crucial to break the association of HIV with homosexuality. Figures from the Terence Higgins Trust show that 50 per cent of new HIV infections in the UK last year were among heterosexuals.

The trust's chief executive, Nick Partridge, welcomes the Government's investment in the campaign but warns it will be difficult to marry it with ongoing health initiatives. "It will be a difficult and complex task to develop an accurate and effective campaign which works in harmony with other health promotion campaigns, he says.

Will Collin, a partner at Naked, says the message for the campaign would be the same for all diseases. "The object of the exercise - whether it's HIV or STI prevention - is to encourage people to wear condoms, he explains.

"We're not trying to stop them having sex - what we are trying to do is create a perception of risk in a way people will understand."

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