Australian music lovers were dancing up a storm in Byron Bay two weekends ago – but many of them were also helping to bring down Australia’s sexually transmissible infection (STI) rate at the same time. Could this be an approach we adopt in New Zealand?
Australia’s premier music festival Splendour in the Grass was held on the weekend in Australia. In an interesting and some would say exciting (if you’re into sexual health) move, organisers had a different entry process than usual. Attendees were asked to take a free sexually transmissible infection (STI) test in exchange for access to a VIP area at the festival.
The initiative is part of Australia’s award-winning Down to Test programme. Since its launch in 2017, almost 2500 young people have provided a urine sample for testing, with 71 cases of chlamydia diagnosed as a result.
Chlamydia is the most commonly diagnosed STI in Aotearoa New Zealand and it is a serious disease. You can get chlamydia through unprotected (no condom) sexual contact including vaginal, oral and anal sex. Pregnant women can spread the bacteria to a baby during birth.
STI rates in Australia are rising, with the number of chlamydia cases almost doubling over the past decade, and those most affected are aged 15 to 29. New Zealand has similarly high rates.
While chlamydia is easily treated with antibiotics, people with the infection often do not know they have it.
Chlamydia infection can cause pain when peeing or during sex and, for women, unusual vaginal discharge and bleeding between periods or after sex. Repeat infection with chlamydia can affect the fallopian tubes and contribute to damage to the reproductive system affecting fertility.
We must think outside the box to ensure New Zealanders are diagnosed and treated as soon as possible if they have contracted chlamydia.
We now provide self-testing as an option in our clinics; there were 3,905 self-tests over the same period. Family Planning has been offering self-testing for chlamydia and gonorrhoea since August last year. The self-test is an option for clients who don’t have any symptoms.
Clients fill in a form and answer a few questions to check the STI self-test is right for them. If it is, clients do the self-test (either taking a swab and/or a urine sample) in the clinic bathroom and return the self-testing kit to the receptionist.
A nurse will contact the person within five days to let them know their results, just like they would for a regular STI test. If they need treatment, the nurse will help book them an appointment.
Following a six month trial, STI self-testing is currently being rolled out to all Family Planning clinics, and will allow clients to be tested without needing an appointment.
Around 20,000 people attended this year’s Auckland City Limits – how many could have benefited from testing? This is the type of testing we could have at events. The flow on effect and potential cost saving to the public health system by promoting sexual health information and diagnosing sexually transmissible diseases could be huge.
New Zealand band Six60 is performing in February; so far their concert is the biggest selling show by a New Zealand artist ever. More than 30,000 tickets have been sold already. Their fans are young adults – could a stall with testing be a reminder to them to practise safe sex once the concert is over? The do-it-yourself tests are already popular with young people, with 68% of the clients using the service being under 22.
Could we even look outside music? What about the audience of more than 50,000 at some All Blacks games?
Testing is simple and easy, and it takes minutes. Maybe the greatest message we can send through initiatives like the one in Australia is just how easy the process is.
There’s nothing to be afraid of and you can do it in your lunch hour. And if you do find you have an STI, treatment is very straightforward.
There are a range of different reasons for getting tested for a STI. You can have an STI test any time if you just want to look after yourself and your partner/s, but you should have one at the following times:
- if you and a new partner are beginning a sexual relationship
- if you have had unprotected sex
- if you think you may have an STI
- if you just want a routine sexual health check
- if a condom broke
- if you are pregnant
- if you have symptoms or just feel something is not right.
A urine test may be all that’s needed to test for an STI.
The best time to promote sexual health is always. So let’s use every opportunity we can to spread that message.
Rose Stewart is Family Planning New Zealand’s national nursing advisor.