It’s a new year and time for my annual STD / STI check. As STD checks are free and relatively convenient in the UK, I go and get one every time I get a new sexual partner, or annually if there’s not been anyone new for a year. It makes me feel confident in my sex life. If you’ve yet to have and STD check or it’s been a while, I highly recommend going to your local GP or GUM clinic and getting checked out. If you’re female and have no symptoms, the check up will be as simple as answering a few questions from a nurse (sure, you have to tell her the number of sexual partners since your last check up, your form of contraception, and whether you’ve been having vaginal, anal or oral sex, but it’s really not that intrusive), going into private to take a few vaginal swabs (basically shoving a large cotton bud into your vagina and twirling it around a few times before popping it into a test tube), then a quick blood test to check for HIV and hepatitis. Most places will send you a text when your results get in, either letting you know all is cool, or asking you in for a follow up visit to treat whatever the test showed up. It’s easy, painless, and helps to keep you at your sexual best.
When I was having a look for my local GUM clinic, having moved across the country since my last check up, I came across a new phenomenon. There were websites advertising “at home” STD / STI checking. Mostly they were hugely expensive, or involved a DIY chemist set where you actually produce and read the results yourself (no thank-you, my schooling in chemistry was way too long ago for me to feel confident in those results!). However, there was one scheme that did seem like a good idea. It is a free at home kit for Chlamydia. Best of all, you post your sample to an actual lab where real trained chemists perform the test and let you know the results via email. Pretty neat, huh?
So naturally, I ordered my free kit and it arrived the very next day. It arrived in a very discreet package, you would have no idea what was inside. If you have nosy housemates they’d never know what it was you ordered.
The instructions were clear and very simple. It was reassuring to me to see the familiar swab that I had used already at my annual STD check up at the GP. The swab was small and non intimidating, and swabbing was easy and comfortable. I made sure I rotated it around my vaginal walls loads to give them a good sample to test.
Once I was done I sealed the swab back in the test tube, which was already labelled with my unique tracking code. I then put it in my pre-paid postage box and popped it into the post box (they even give you a little map of all the nearest post boxes to you, just in case you don’t know where one is!). I think it’s important to get it in the post right away as I’m not sure how long the sample will be useable.
A week later I found an email in my inbox notifying me that my results are ready. It gives me two unique codes to enter into the website to find out my results (which is safer than just telling you in an email that anyone could accidentally see on your phone or something). I went to the website, entered the numbers, and discovered I had tested negative for Chlamydia and Gonorrhea (I paid to have the lab test for Gonorrhea too, being as it is another common but often symptomless STI). Whoo-hoo!
Now, the obvious major disadvantage of this method is it only tests for Chlamydia. I can understand why they targeted this particular STI, as it is the most common one in the UK for young people, and it is often symptomless, but at the end of the day you need checking for the whole spectrum of STIs and STDs, not just one common one. The company has created a full GUM clinic test at home kit but it is not available for free in most areas. You can pay to test for more STDs, as I did with Gonorrhea, but it is very pricy. For the full screen it’ll set you back £100, plus £20 for the HIV blood test. £120 for something you can get done for free at the GUM clinic is pretty steep, even it if is more convenient. The dual test of Chlamydia and Gonorrhea costs a much more reasonable £25, and HIV or Chlamydia alone costs £20. But this brings me back to the initial issue of needing to have an annual check up for all of the common STIs.
What I can see this being perfect for is if you have a past sexual partner tell you they have contracted a specific STD and you would like peace of mind that you haven’t got it without the hassle of making an appointment at your local GP or GUM clinic. Otherwise, it’s not very useful to know you’ve not got Chlamydia but might have Gonorrhea or Syphilis or something else. For complete confidence you need to make that appointment.
However, it’d be cool if all STD checks could be done this way, just receiving an at home testing kit to post off to a lab and await results. Particularly great for introverts like myself who hate making appointments, or for people who live in very rural parts of the country that simply do not have GUM clinics. With the NHS being put under more and more strain, postal testing and check ups like these could offer a much needed ease in the number of appointments. They would encourage many more people to be tested more often, without needing to use up the precious time of GP nurses. Only people with positive test results would be referred for a doctor or nurse appointment to discuss treatment.
It is also short sighted to only offer these tests for the under 25s. It should cover all ages for anyone who wants one. In some ways, it might be more embarrassing for an older person to go to their local GUM clinic than a young person. This could be one reason for the rise in STDs in the elderly. If they could take a test without the least embarrassment possible they might be more willing to go for it.
I hope they manage to get the funding to implement free at home tests for a much larger range of STDs. The technology and logistics are there, maybe one day the NHS will push it through. I’ll wait and see with bated breath. Perhaps next year’s annual check up will be fully at home.
But for the time-being, me and my Chlamydia-free vagina are off to the GUM clinic for a more thorough check up.