The World Health Organisation (WHO) has found that one million new cases of treatable sexually transmitted disease (STD) or infection (STI) are diagnosed every single day, while a new study from Medicine Direct found 33% of 23-37 year olds had never had an STI test. This writer had put off getting tested for for years, until she discovered a service that truly changed everything.
I’d been meaning to get an STI test for weeks. But somehow I just couldn’t find the time.
All things considered, I don’t have the greatest track record when it came to checking I don’t have any sexually transmitted diseases. There was the one time three years ago that I dragged myself down to a clinic, after finding myself on the brink of a relationship. I got the full MOT: screening for every STI possible, and a fancy new contraceptive implant to boot. I felt smug for a solid three months at my successful foray into responsibility. After that… nothing.
My own experiences align with a 2017 report that found, while 62% of women aged 16 to 24 say they have attended a sexual health clinic in the past year after having ‘unsafe’ sex, only 23% of 25- to 34-year-old women say the same. My attitude is common across young women who have sorted out their birth control and, once the fear of pregnancy has been banished, fall behind on other body admin.
Sure, I was made partly complacent thanks to the security of being in a relationship for the better part of two years. But once that ended in late 2017, the excuses for why I wasn’t getting a regular check-up were as thin as a Durex Extra Sensitive condom.
When it came to finding the time to get tested, there just didn’t seem to be enough hours in the day. Working a nine-to-six job put me at odds with clinic opening hours during the week. I couldn’t find one sexual health centre that was open past 7pm. And if it was this bad for someone with access to all the services offered by the biggest city in the UK, then how restrictive were the barriers facing those in more rural areas?
In 2019, 47% of councils in England reported that they were forced to cut sexual health programmes thanks to budget reductions. This translates to reduced opening hours and less staff funding for already squeezed clinics, with some having no choice but to close their doors altogether. And in 2017, the Local Government Association warned such services were facing ‘unprecedented’ pressure, as demand increased by 25% while public health funding fell by 10%.
On top of this, I knew I’d need to allocate a serious chunk of time to any potential visit; it wasn’t going to be quick. My previous expedition had revealed how pinched resources already were: despite being one of only two people using the walk-in service on a weekday, I’d waited three hours to be seen. Fine when you’re a student; not so much when you’re in full-time employment with only a lunch hour to spare.
And forget a pre-booked appointment – that service was almost as impossible to access as seeing a GP. I had weekends free but every time I made plans to go spend and Sunday with a friend at my nearest GUM, something (alcohol) would come up and we’d make our excuses.
I’m not alone. Steph, 26, says time is the biggest obstacle to her own attempts at getting checked out.
“I haven’t been tested in about six months and I know that I need to,” she reports.
“The thing that stops me is the time I imagine it’s going to take and how difficult it can be to get to a clinic in the slots they [have allotted] for walk-ins. I already [am] really busy and this is difficult to fit into my life.”
Emily, 22, told Stylist a similar story.
“I definitely don’t get tested as much as I should,” she says.
“I’m in a relationship now but even before I had an ‘ignorance is bliss’ attitude, which is obviously stupid. The thing that stopped me [getting tested] was an uncertainty in my schedule. My work rota was different every week and lots of clinics, even the really good ones, have restricted hours and full waiting lists by 9am so I [wasn’t] able to get an appointment anyway.”
My own failure to get to a clinic had me stressed. When I got a cold, I immediately concluded it was the latent emergence of the HIV virus. A sore on my arm was definitely syphilis.
In a moment of madness, I bought antibiotics intended to treat chlamydia and gonorrhoea from a high-street chemist and scarfed them down – despite not being tested. I considered it a ‘pre-emptive’ move that would ensure my safety (note: do not do this, especially on a regular basis: your body could build up a resistance to the antibiotics if you take them when you don’t actually have an STI). I was, to put it lightly, concerned about the state of my sexual health.
So finally, I resolved to find a clinic that I could go to after work, even if it meant taking a half day of annual leave. And like manna from heaven, I stumbled across Sexual Health London (SHL) while in the process of Googling locations.
“Free Home STI Testing Kit” the website proclaimed. All it required was for me to create a basic login and answer the standard questions I would be asked in a face-to-face consultation. A few clicks later and my kit was on its way.
The SHL test kit in all its sustainably packaged glory.
Two days later, my kit arrived in an unassuming cardboard box, containing lancets and a vial for the blood sample, along with a swab and a small form to fill out so my samples could be identified. The entire collection process took 10 minutes, although I had to rope in a friend to pierce my skin three different times. Once I had successfully managed to funnel enough drops to sufficiently fill the vial (harder than it seems), I took a quick vaginal swab and re-sealed the box.
And that was it; I sent it off – return postage is prepaid – and three days later my results were available to view: a full screening for five STIs. All clear. And for those less fortunate, a positive result is swiftly followed by the offer of free postal treatment or an in-clinic consultation to discuss further options.
I was stunned. How could a service this efficient and painless (bar the pinpricks) exist and no one was talking about it?
Raising the subject with others via an Instagram story and face-to-face conversations drew the same reactions. No one I spoke to, not even those who got regularly tested, knew that sexual health services across the country were providing free at-home kits that did full STI screenings. Some were vaguely aware that chlamydia kits existed; others said they thought they were only available to under-18s.
So here’s the good news. You can order free, confidential STI tests from almost every area in the UK. While London is serviced by SHL, different organisations across the country, usually funded by the NHS, also offer the kits. These include SH:24, which supplies 15 counties from Derbyshire to Herefordshire, freetest.me, which is available in over 80 locations, VirginCare, which serves the north, and Let’s Talk About It, a southern organisation.
“If you live in an area where clinics have been closed or had their hours cut, then a home test can be a good alternative to long waiting times at walk-in services, or having to wait a few weeks for an appointment,” Bekki Burbidge, Deputy Chief Executive at sexual health charity FPA, tells Stylist.
“Home testing can also be a good choice if you don’t have a convenient local service or you don’t feel you can attend a clinic. But all home tests should carry a CE mark – don’t buy or use a test without a CE mark [which is just the letters ‘CE’] as it might not give an accurate result. However, if you have any signs or symptoms of an STI then you should always attend a clinic, GP or other service in person, so that this can be checked out and treatment started promptly if needed.”
Testing should be a regular occurence, Burbidge adds.
“When it comes to testing, when you have a change of partner then both partners should have an STI check before having sex,” she says. “A colleague of mine always suggests that the first date should be a trip to the STI clinic. Other times to get tested are if you or a sexual partner have sex with other people without using a condom, have any symptoms, or are diagnosed with an STI.
“It’s also a good idea to have a test if you’re planning a pregnancy and may have been at risk of an STI. Testing is nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about – we really encourage you to see it as a normal part of a healthy lifestyle.”
I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say the discovery of these free kits has changed my life – and my sexual health. Here’s hoping it does the same for you.
This piece was originally published in June 2019 but has been updated with new information throughout.
Images: Getty, Tallie Robinson, Joanna Nix, Toa Heftiba
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