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Could Covid contact tracing work for STIs?

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Lots of STIs don’t have obvious symptoms so it’s important to get tested for STIs before and after unprotected sex, or anytime you have sex with a new person.

The concept behind the Covid tracer app could be applied to preventing the spread of sexually transmissible infections (STIs), a researcher has found.

Public Health registrar Dr Catriona Murray says many patients prefer to tell contacts themselves and need to be helped to do this with good information and support.

Local studies indicate that currently STI contact tracing, also called partner notification, is often incomplete and that the process is under-resourced.

Murray interviewed a dozen professionals with expertise in contact tracing for STIs, as part of her Master’s of Public Health at the University of Otago, Wellington.

The findings are published in the New Zealand Medical Journal today.

“Aotearoa has ongoing high rates of curable STIs, including chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis.

“We need more resources to reduce the high and inequitable rates of STIs and to allow us to rapidly respond to new or emerging infections that can be spread via sexual contact.”

She says a centralised system, like the Covid-19 tracking app the government created during the pandemic, would enable a more consistent approach to notification for STIs.

It would also alleviate some of the burden on already stretched clinicians and GPs.

“The health professionals working in primary care, sexual health, public health and research who were interviewed for the study overwhelmingly agreed that more resourcing, support and training is needed to improve STI partner notification.”

Public Health registrar Dr Catriona Murray interviewed a dozen professionals with expertise in contact tracing for STIs.
Public Health registrar Dr Catriona Murray interviewed a dozen professionals with expertise in contact tracing for STIs.

Currently, it is the diagnosing clinician’s responsibility to talk to the patient about contact tracing.

They must ask about the number of sexual contacts in the past three months, and the clinician will inform the contacts anonymously with the patient’s consent.

The health professionals interviewed did raise concerns about trust and privacy if a national contact tracing service was established.

They also stressed the importance of local area knowledge and the need for cultural safety for gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men, and for Māori and Pasifika peoples.

“High levels of trust are clearly a key part of successful partner notification, and for some populations that might be best achieved through trusted local providers who could be supported, as needed, by central expertise.”

Murray said partner notification for STIs can be difficult to carry out successfully, particularly in cases where there are complexities that may require cultural, medical and/or legal expertise.

Patient safety is always a priority and contacts are not informed if there is a risk of violence.

She said there is a lack of STI services in rural areas of New Zealand, and a national STI contact tracing workforce could provide a consistent, expert telehealth service, either directly to cases and contacts or by supporting local clinicians.

“We may get the best outcomes through the establishment of a centralised STI contact tracing service that also provides training and support for local practitioners.”

What are STIs and how do I prevent them?

STIs are infections you can get from having unprotected vaginal sex, anal sex, oral sex, or skin-to-skin contact with someone.

The most common STIs in New Zealand are chlamydia, genital warts and gonorrhoea, Family Planning NZ said.

Lots of STIs don’t have obvious symptoms so it’s important to get tested for STIs before and after unprotected sex, or anytime you have sex with a new person.

The best time to test is two weeks or more after having sex with a new person.

You can’t tell for sure if someone has an STI, or if you have an STI, without doing an STI test, Family Planning NZ said.



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