If you got a text from a random number telling you you might have gotten an STD from a partner, what would your first reaction be?
For some it might be panic, for others anger, or doubt.
Online services allow people who have tested positive for a sexually transmitted infection to notify their partners anonymously, driving screening rates up by 1.5-fold in a World Health Organization study of more then 5,000 people.
The messages are undoubtedly anxiety-inducing and confusing, but but experts say it’s worth it, as the services have helped to slow down the spread of diseases.
No one wants to send or receive a message about STD test results, but services allow you to tell your partner anonymously, cutting the personal part out of the equation
There are an estimated 20 million new cases of curable sexually transmitted infections (STDs) and 50,000 more HIV diagnoses each year.
STDs reached a record high in 2016, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and nearly half of 18- to 35-year-olds said that they had never discussed their test results with past partners.
Stigma still swirls around sexually transmitted infections, in spite of readily available treatments.
These anonymous services have been around for many years, but have perhaps remained in the shadows because people in the US are still uncomfortable talking about sexual health and practices.
Nicole Cushman, executive director of sexual education organization Answer, an extension of Rutgers University in New Jersey, says that the services were introduced in the 2000s as ‘a part of outbreak controls to try to slow the flow of transmission.’
Now, even outside of a clinic, anyone can go online, enter the number of the person they would like to notify of their test status, hit send and be done with it.
Besides STDcheck.com, other services include dontspreadit.com, bettertoknow.org and checkhimout.com, part of the Health Initiative for Men.
Medical data is strictly protected by laws in the US, there is nothing stopping someone from prompting another person to think they may have a disease or infection through these sites.
In an ideal world, we would help people develop the confidence and communication skills to tell partners themselves, but we’re just not there yet
Nicole Cushman, executive director of sex education organization, Answer
The services are not monitored, but Cushman doubts that they’re used often for pranks.
‘My gut is that the fear about them being abused or misused is possibly some unnecessary panic,’ she says.
She says she hasn’t heard of these services ‘being spam or anything shady, though there is some history stemming from the movie Mean Girls around people prank calling people notifying them of their STD status…this became a bit of a trend and a sort of joke in pop culture for awhile,’ she says.
But ‘there are pros and cons,’ to the services, Cushman adds.
‘We certainly want to do everything we can to destigmatize STDs, especially because they are so common, treatable and many are curable, so we don’t want to promote fear or shame,’ she says.
A 2009 study of people between the ages of 15 and 24 found that the more stigma the young people attached to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), the less likely they were to get tested.
STDcheck.com is a legitimate screening company, which provides people who get tested through one of its facilities an option to tell their partners their results anonymously
According to the American Sexual Health Association, while young people make up half of all new STD diagnoses each year, only about 12 percent report getting tested in the last year.
‘Young people tend to think that they’re invincible and that nothing is going to happen to them,’ she says.
‘On the whole, they are a very healthy group of people, so the idea of contracting infection often isn’t top of mind for them.’
This means that getting people to testing centers is the first task, and partner notification services may help to drive people there.
Young people tend to think that they’re invincible and that nothing is going to happen to them…so the idea of contracting infection often isn’t top of mind for them
The World Health Organization found that use of anonymous notification services for those who tested positive for HIV led to a 1.5-fold increase in screenings in a study of 5,000 pepole, and ‘strongly’ recommended the programs be introduced to HIV care and testing worldwide.
‘In an ideal world, we would help people develop the confidence and communication skills to tell partners themselves, but we’re just not there yet,’ Cushman says.
Stress hormones spike while people wait for test results, studies have shown, but Cushman adds that ‘anxiety really stems from lack of information, so it’s important to provide links and information hotlines’ with messages to get tested.
STDcheck.com, for example, provides a link in its message, which takes receivers to a page explaining what the message is and why they got it. Portions of the site do provide information about a number of STDs, but much of the webpage is dedicated to advertising its own testing centers and packages.
It is an imperfect system, but ‘from a public health perspective, it’s certainly helpful to make sure people get notified in a timely matter,’ Cushman says.
‘We need a lot of tools in our tool boxes, and, at the end of the day, it’s probably a good tool to have.’