Guys can get STDs all sorts of ways. Even if they’re taking very effective steps to prevent HIV transmission, such as PrEP or HIV meds, they can still get and transmit STDs.
In addition to condoms and testing, there’s another important step that men can take to help reduce STD and HIV transmission in their community: notifying their partners if they think they may have exposed them to an STD.
Many people with STDs never experience any symptoms, so unless they’ve been tested, they often don’t know they have an STD or that they could unknowingly give it to someone else. That’s why notifying partners that they may be infected is so vital to helping break the chain of transmission.
Research has shown that most men believe that notifying partners is the right thing to do, and many of them report wanting to do it themselves. But it can still be awkward, embarrassing, and sometimes even risky to tell a partner that they may have given them an STD. That’s why it’s important to give them easy ways to tell their partners.
Sites and apps can help. Here’s how:
1. Make it easier for men to keep track of their partners.
The more a site or app allows individuals to save messages or partner profiles, the easier it is for someone who’s been diagnosed with an STD to find a former partner. Allowing and encouraging users to save a profile or messages, can help a great deal. Adding capacity for users to save messages for a year would also be a tremendous help, since public health guidelines recommend that people infected with some STDs and HIV contact their partners met in the last year. Additional strategies, such as encouraging men to add people they’ve had sex with to their buddy or “favorite” list, would also help them keep track of their partners.
2. Allow Health Specialists on their sites and apps.
Health Specialists – sometimes called Disease Intervention Specialists, or DIS, – are highly trained in and for decades have played an essential role in stopping the spread of STDs and HIV by helping people get tested and treated. They’re employed by either a health department or a community-based organization.
Healthcare providers are required by law to report certain STDs to their local health department. Once someone is diagnosed with syphilis or HIV by a healthcare provider, a health specialist will get in touch with them. (Some health departments will also have a health specialist contact a patient with gonorrhea if they have enough staff to do so.) They’ll offer to work with the patient to tell their sex partners that they may have been exposed and encourage them to go to their doctor or a clinic to be tested. Working with health specialists is always completely voluntary.
If a site user is uncomfortable telling their partners directly, they can ask a health specialist to help by reaching out to partners to let them know that they have been exposed to an STD or HIV. The health specialist will NEVER tell a partner who gave them their name. Health specialists are committed to protecting privacy. Furthermore, health specialists will not give any details that would reveal where, or when, the partner may have been exposed.
Creating a standardized profile for a health specialist, with their agency’s logo, is one key step to promoting partner services on a site or app.
Importantly, research has found that site users report welcoming the help of a DIS to notify their partners.
Again, most men want to let their partners know about a potential STD and are glad that their partners are notified and able to get tested and treated. And many men who get notified are grateful that they got the information so that they can take care of themselves. Ultimately, by people notifying each other, either by themselves or with the assistance of their health department, they’re promoting the health of the entire community.
Partner notification has lent itself much more to websites than apps. First, site users have unique identities, which make it easier for a user to find a partner. Second, unless a user has saved a partner’s profile, he may not be able to see him if he’s not in the same geographic area. This also makes it much harder for them to notify partners, as well as for health specialists to find them if they’re trying to help.
BHOC is currently working with researchers at the University of Washington to determine which strategies app users would be most likely to support, including allowing users to anonymously notify partners within an app that they should get tested, and will continue to work with app owners to find ways that work for them.