Free home kit lets women test for 2 sexually transmitted diseases

Research effort focuses on chlamydia, gonorrhea

August 04, 2004|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Maryland women who want to be screened for two sexually transmitted diseases can now do it at home instead of traipsing to the doctor's office for an uncomfortable pelvic exam, under a pilot program led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

The study, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, offers free kits from local pharmacies that allow women to test themselves for chlamydia and gonorrhea, then send a sample back to a Hopkins lab in a postage-paid envelope.

The results are available by telephone - using a kit number and password - in about a week. Follow-up treatment, if needed, is also free.

"We're thinking that the more available the test is and the more we can educate people about the disease, maybe that will have an impact," said infectious disease specialist Charlotte Gaydos, an associate professor of medicine at Hopkins and the study's lead investigator.

"What we hope to do is to influence these women to try to keep themselves healthy and to test themselves," she said.

Research has shown that self-collected tests are as accurate as a doctor's cervical exam - and, to women, more comfortable and less intrusive.

The kits, which will be available for six months as part of the study, contain a sterile swab, a consent form and a questionnaire. Administering the test takes 15 seconds. The client then seals the swab in a plastic tube and sends it for testing.

If the test comes back positive for disease, she'll be given a referral to a nearby clinic for treatment, which usually cures the problem.

The CDC recommends that sexually active women age 25 and younger be screened for chlamydia and other STDs every year.

More than 834,000 chlamydia cases were reported to the agency in 2002, making it the most frequently reported bacterial STD in the United States. The disease can be transmitted during oral, anal or vaginal sex or from a mother to her child during a vaginal birth.

Screening is critical because many infected women - up to 90 percent by some estimates - don't exhibit symptoms. Left untreated, chlamydia can cause a variety of health problems, including pelvic inflammatory disease, which can lead to infertility, chronic pelvic pain and ectopic pregnancies.

"It's easily curable with one single dose of an antibiotic, so it's important that [women] take the responsibility to get themselves tested," Gaydos said.

The kits, which come in brown paper packaging, are available throughout the state at participating pharmacies and recreation centers (a list of sites is at www.iwantthekit.org). If a woman doesn't feel comfortable asking for one, she can print out a coupon, much like a prescription, and hand it to the pharmacist, or fill out a form online and receive the kit by mail.

After six months, Gaydos and her colleagues will evaluate how many women used the kit, how easy the results were to access and how many of the patients who required treatment followed through.

Dr. Eva Hersh, director of primary care medicine at Chase Brexton Health Services, said that because sexually transmitted diseases are primarily confined to high-risk groups, widespread screening might not detect a lot of infections.

"I would anticipate this being done by the `worried well,' " said Hersh, who also runs Chase Brexton's STD clinic.

She said some doctors might resist such a home STD test, believing it should be given annually in conjunction with a Pap smear, a common test for cervical cancer.

"Some people, particularly gynecologists, probably are going to object and say women should be getting these when they get their Paps, and this will mean they won't get their Paps," Hersh added. "But I doubt it. I think anything that increases screening is probably a good thing."

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