STIs: Lockdown ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ for sexual health

(BBC) – No parties. No pulling. No new sexual partners.

Self-isolation has meant a huge change in a lot of people’s sex lives but experts believe the fact we’re not hooking up is a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to drive down sexually transmitted infections permanently.

They say taking STI tests at home while in lockdown could be “a game changer”.

That’s because people who are following lockdown rules aren’t having sex with new people and passing on infections.

“If we could test and treat everybody for their infections now, that would be a game-changer going forward as people slowly move towards normality,” Dr John McSorley, a sexual health doctor and president of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (Bashh), tells Radio 1 Newsbeat.

He – and other sexual health professionals – want people to get tested now, even if they have no symptoms.

Why test now?

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, 54% of UK sexual health services have closed, and 38% of sexual health staff have been moved to work in other parts of the NHS.

That’s meant some people are getting STI advice, diagnoses – and in some cases treatment – over the phone or through the post, instead of having to visit a clinic.

“If people can keep testing going and everyone gets tested while on this break, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event really,” says Justin Harbottle, who works for SH:24, which provides free home-testing kits online.

“Even at the start of the HIV epidemic, I don’t think you had such a clean-cut period where collectively – as a population – people stopped having sex with new partners.”

How HIV rates could be affected

Someone is most likely to pass on HIV when they’ve just caught it themselves because that’s when the virus is at its highest levels in the body.

Getting a positive HIV diagnosis during lockdown means that person is less likely to have had sex with other people during their most infectious period. They can then start treatment straight away to bring levels of the virus in the body down to undetectable levels, meaning it can’t be passed on.

“We think there may be less and less people around who are super-infectious,” says Dr Gary Whitlock, who works at London’s Dean Street clinic, which diagnoses a quarter of all the HIV cases in gay men in the UK.

“If they start treatment, or become non-infectious, they can’t pass it to anybody so it’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us to get people at high risk of HIV to test.”

During lockdown, Dean Street clinic has seen people visiting the clinic for PEP prescriptions (a drug taken immediately after exposure to HIV that can stop you catching it) drop from an average of 50 per week to less than 10.

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