GMFA launches nationwide scheme to alert gay men at risk of STIs

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A major UK-wide scheme to notify partners of gay men diagnosed with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is to be piloted from this April. The Sexual Health Messaging Service is developed by GMFA, the gay men’s health charity, in collaboration with seven GU clinics, and the gay dating websites Fitlads, Gaydar, Manhunt and Recon. The scheme is funded by the Elton John AIDS Foundation and aims to reduce the number of men with undiagnosed STIs, including HIV. Men who are diagnosed with an STI can notify previous sexual partners via an online system, so the partners can get tested and, if necessary, treated.

The HPA estimates that over a quarter of gay men with HIV are unaware they have the virus, and its data shows that the number of new STI diagnoses among gay men rose in 2008 and 2009(1).GMFA’s own research(2) shows that the vast majority of gay men (99.3%) want to be notified by their sexual partner if they get diagnosed with an STI and 97.5% want to be told if their partner gets diagnosed with HIV.

Matthew Hodson, Head of Programmes at GMFA, comments: “Many STIs don’t show any symptoms, so lots of men may be infected and not know it. While it’s best to tell men you’ve had sex with if you find out you’ve picked up an STI, making that awkward phone call or sending an email can be difficult. As a result, some men choose not to tell, even though they know they should. We’ve made the process as easy as possible by doing most of the work for you – all you need is a contact for your partners and we’ll take care of the rest.”

Existing partner notification systems often require those diagnosed with an STI to contact their partners direct, sometimes using a pink slip issued by the clinic. GMFA’s research shows these systems often don’t work. Not having partners’ contact details, embarrassment, not wanting the partner to know about their STI status, and not wanting to see the partner again were some of the main reasons for men not notifying any sexual partners. Of those who did notify their partners, only 65% notified all their partners.

With GMFA’s Sexual Health Messaging Service, men are given a unique reference number by their clinic so they can log in to the online system and send notifications via a number of contact methods, including dating website profile name, cruising app profile name, mobile or email. The message is composed for them and includes links to details of where their partners can go for testing. While men are encouraged to identify themselves in the message, it can be kept anonymous.

The service launches with a six-month pilot from 4 April 2011. Four clinics in London will participate in the pilot: 56 Dean Street, Homerton University Hospital, The Lloyd Clinic at Guy’s Hospital, and St Bartholemew’s Hospital. Also taking part are The Sheffield Royal Hallamshire Hospital, The Hathersage Centre in Manchester, and Claude Nicol Centre at Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton.

Men can use the service to send messages to members of the four participating gay dating websites (Fitlads, Gaydar, Manhunt and Recon) plus the cruising app, Bender. Members of these websites are urged to opt-in to receive notifications when they are sent the invite to do so.

Following the pilot, GMFA will roll the service out to all clinics in London for a further six months before expanding it across the rest of the UK.

Matthew adds: “This is a major project and marks a huge shift in the way men can notify their partners about STIs they’ve picked up. By making the process easy, we hope to make more men aware of any STIs they may have and ultimately reduce the number of STI infections in the community.”

(1) HPA: Total numbers of STI diagnoses and other episodes of care seen at genitourinary medicine clinics by gender and sexual orientation, UK and England: 2000 – 2009.

(2) GMFA’s survey on gay men’s experience and expectations of Partner Notification Services was conducted in January and February 2010. Over 3,000 gay and bisexual men took part.