A trend is on the rise and it is alarming for public health experts: chemsex, or sexual intercourse under the influence of illegal substance and often with multiple partners. HIV experts rang the alarm on chemsex and how those engaging in the activity are at risk of sexually transmitted disease (STD) and serious mental health repercussions brought by drug dependency.

The combination of drugs often used includes mephedrone and crystal meth, both physiological stimulants, which increase heart rate and trigger sexual arousal, as well as potent psychological disinhibitor Gamma Hydroxybutyrate (GHB) and its precursor Gamma-Butyrolactone (GBL).

“Mental health services are seeing a small but important uptake in services by chemsex drug users,” says an editorial published in the British Medical Journal, adding that the mental effects can become permanent when left untreated.

The researchers cited the Chemsex Study, a first-of-its-kind research project in Britain. Deriving data from the European Men-Who-Have-Sex-With-Men Internet Survey (EMIS), the study found that about one-fifth of 1,142 respondents reported having chemsex within the past five years and one in 10 within the last four weeks.

Findings also suggested that chemsex is practiced by a minority of males who are having sex with men, but that a majority of those engaging in it are seeking medical help for related health concerns.

Antidote Service, which specializes in services for London’s LGBT community, noted that 64 percent of its drug use support attendees reported the use of chemsex drugs from 2013 to 2014. Most crystal meth and GHB and GBL users, too, said their drug use was for facilitating sex.

BMJ editorial authors Hannah McGill and Jamie Willis from Antidote pointed out the reported effects on chemsex drug users, including “losing days” or not eating or sleeping for up to 72 hours. Data also reflected that they averaged five sexual partners in a given session, with unprotected intercourse as the norm.

The authors called for making chemsex-related cases a public health priority, when U.K. drug services funding is currently focusing on tackling addiction to cocaine, heroin, and alcohol. Both doctors and chemsex drug users may believe being referred to traditional services is not aligned with their needs.

The lack of data, too, may hinder comprehensive advice from clinicians.

Dr. Richard Roope of the Royal College of General Practitioners agreed on prioritizing this public health issue.

“Chemsex [occurs] not just amongst men who have sex with men as often assumed, but heterosexual patients as well,” he said, urging both patients and physicians to beware of the dangers and to take the issue seriously.

Willis echoed that the practice may have also penetrated heterosexual populations, as he has heard anecdotally from colleagues in related health services. “[I]t’s not as widespread as of yet,” Willis said.

The Chemsex Study was published by Sigma Research, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in March 2014.

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