Sexual Health Centre in Cork continues to provide support, education and testing during Covid

There is a growing demand in Cork for inclusive and responsive sexual health services, says Olivia Teahan, who is the Communications and Engagement Lead, Sexual Health Centre
Sexual Health Centre in Cork continues to provide support, education and testing during Covid

Tony Power (Social Inclusion Specialist, Cork City Council), launching SHIFT outside Cork City Hall with Olivia Teahan (Author of SHIFT, and Communications & Engagement Lead, the Sexual Health Centre). Photo: Ian Gubbins.

THE Sexual Health Centre, which has been serving the Cork community since 1987, found that many sexual health issues experienced by clients were exacerbated by the impact of the pandemic over the past 12 months.

Many people have been struggling with contraception access, pregnancies, relationships, and STI testing, as reported in the Centre’s newly published Annual Report for 2020. The team at 16 Peters Street have been bridging the gap with virtual support services for people of all ages and have continued to provide free rapid HIV testing and pregnancy testing at the Centre.

Delivering tangible support to the Cork community has remained the Centre’s number one priority throughout the pandemic. Several new initiatives were launched to meet the community’s changing needs, including free condom mail-outs. This service was set up immediately after the first pandemic-related restrictions were announced, providing free contraception to people around the country. Other responsive initiatives included public information campaigns, a therapy service in relation to problematic sexualised behaviour, online training for youth workers and educators, and community-based youth information hubs.

In line with public health guidance, the Centre adapted its free counselling services last year, using phone and video calls to support people living with HIV, and those experiencing crisis or unplanned pregnancies.

Health promotion services have also been delivered virtually to provide education and support to members of marginalised communities, young people, and LGBTI+ people. There is a growing demand for inclusive, accessible sexual health services — by bringing our team to client’s screens, virtual service delivery has facilitated easier access for many.

The Centre saw a 60% increase in counselling sessions delivered for people living with HIV in 2020, and a 37 per cent increase in LGBTI+ sexual health support sessions delivered. 

However, there are many people for whom receiving support over the phone has not been feasible, due to issues with internet and device access, and privacy in shared living spaces.

In response to this, the Sexual Health Centre paid particular attention to its partnerships during 2020. Collaborating with organisations across sectors and counties has been key to providing support, education, and testing for the wider community during the pandemic.

In collaboration with Cork Education & Training Board (CETB), the Centre launched Ireland’s first community-based Sexual Health Hub for young people at Youth Work Ireland Cork’s ‘Hut’ in Gurranabraher. The Centre has continued to set up hubs across Cork city and county, providing a first point of contact for many youths. This service enables young people to access information leaflets on sexual health topics (e.g. contraception, relationships, sexually transmitted infections), condom provision where appropriate, and staff who are equipped to signpost to specific sexual health services.

Further collaborations during the pandemic have included GOSHH (Gender, Orientation, Sexual Health, HIV) and SWAI (Sex Workers Alliance Ireland) producing a COVID-19 information card for street-based sex workers.

With the support of Healthy Ireland, the Health Service Executive and sexualwellbeing.ie, the Centre adapted its annual World AIDS Day run, to host the first national virtual event of its kind.

As part of the Sexual Health Network, the Centre launched the ‘#AFewHomeTruths’ campaign on billboards in Cork city to raise awareness of various sexual health issues and support services.

The Sexual Health Centre team serves not only to deliver targeted services for specific issues and communities, but also to advocate for the widespread acceptance of sexual health as an integral and natural aspect of one’s life.

Though masturbation continues to be the safest sexual activity during the pandemic, many are anticipating the adaption of restrictions and the potential ability to connect with others in-person in the coming months.

Sexual pleasure is a healthy and important aspect of life which many people have struggled with over the past year. Navigating the sea of change brought by the pandemic has involved the highs and lows of isolating with, or living separately from, a sexual partner; libido changes; lack of privacy for sexual activity; online dating; and missing in-person connection and physical touch in general. Everyone has the right to embrace their sexuality, and to experience shared sexual experiences safely and consensually. A crucial aspect of all sexual experiences – in-person, online, and otherwise – is giving and receiving consent, in a voluntary, ongoing, mutual and enthusiastic manner. It is advisable that people continue to limit their number of in-person sexual partners as much as possible during the pandemic, and take extra precautions regarding public health guidance, contraception, and Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) prevention.

The Sexual Health Centre endeavours to spread the message that people should not ignore their sexual health needs and the team at 16 Peters Street is available to support and advise the people of Cork on any of these issues with no bias, no judgement and no exception.

For more on the centre’s work see www.sexualhealthcentre.com

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