LA gives home-test kits for chlamydia, gonorrhea
- on September 20, 2011
By Shaya Tayefe Mohajer/Associated Press
South Los Angeles girls and women looking for discreet sexually transmitted disease testing will be able to visit high-tech kiosks to get free home-testing kits as part of an innovative program that aims to cut costs.
Public health directors all over the United States are watching Monday's announced expansion of the $2.5 million Los Angeles "I Know" campaign. If self-testing proves effective in reducing illnesses, it could also be a solution to budget cuts that have forced the closure of clinics that tested for STDs in Los Angeles County and elsewhere.
In 1996, there were 36 sexually transmitted disease testing clinics in the county, and today there are only 12, said Dr. Peter Kerndt, director of the county's STD program.
"We want medical services to be available all the time, but with clinic closures we had real reason to be concerned," Kerndt said.
Using the new model, the county will have to turn around some of the nation's worst health statistics to prove their program works.
Los Angeles County leads the country in the number of chlamydia cases and is second in gonorrhea cases, with the highest concentration of both illnesses in the young minority female populations of South Los Angeles, said county public health director Dr. Jonathan Fielding.
Eight kiosks in South Los Angeles will distribute free kits for girls and women under age 25 to perform a simple swab test and return the specimen to a lab. A week later, women can get test results online or by phone— and if necessary, free treatment and follow-up counseling.
Women don't have to use their real names to get a kit, though a cellphone number or email is required so the health department can contact them with results.
The gonorrhea and chlamydia test kit costs $6, and it costs another $20 for a lab to run the tests — far less than what a brick-and-mortar clinic visit would cost the county, said Jorge Montoya, director of outreach and control for the county STD program.
From test to treatment, the service is free of charge or scrutiny to the user.
"Shame is not a cure for any communicable disease — it's not the cure for tuberculosis and it is not the cure for any sexually transmitted disease, either," said county supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who spearheaded the campaign for his constituents.
Chlamydia and gonorrhea are curable, but can cause serious health problems if left untreated, including sterility and tubal problems in childbirth.
Program administrators say young women who are nervous about being spotted at a clinic will feel less self-conscious about visiting a kiosk at a pharmacy.
The kiosks are a new phase in the program that launched in June 2009 to allow women to order kits online or by text, and provide women with kits without asking for an address where the test can be discovered by others, said Kerndt.
Even so, Kerndt says the results from the first phase of the program have been encouraging.
According to county statistics, in the program's first year 2,927 kits were ordered, and little more than half were returned. Of those tested about 8.5 percent were found to be positive for one or both STDs, a rate that is higher than many clinics serving young women.
About 95 percent of those who test positive for chlamydia and gonorrhea follow up for treatment, a single-dose antibiotic, said Kerndt.
In 2010, Los Angeles County recorded 54,149 cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea, with 61 percent of cases being found in women, the majority of whom were between 15 and 24 years old. [In comparison, there were 10,510 cases of chlamydia in Kansas in 2009, according to StateHealthFacts.org. The numbers may be significantly larger in Los Angeles County, but the population of the county is close to 10 million.]
Similar programs have been implemented in Alameda and San Mateo counties, and state health officials are considering a statewide program modeled after the Los Angeles program, said Kerndt.
The program is also placing a strong emphasis on community outreach. In a move that bucks conservative Christian thought, which encourages abstinence until marriage, local churches have banded together to support Ridley-Thomas' initiative.
"It is absolutely the Christian thing to do" to reach past taboo and put health concerns first, said Denise Hunter, president of the First AME Church with 19,000 constituents in South LA.
"We recognize in the interfaith community that abstinence is ideal — but we have to take it from ideal to reality," Hunter said.
A coalition of women from area churches are slated to engage in workshops to learn how to have constructive conversations about sexual health with young people and engage struggling young women in moral but candid conversations about love, relationships, sex, molestation and developing the self-esteem to care for their individual sexual health.
It's a taboo conversation that is not always had in homes or schools, but information that young women need to be safe, Hunter said.
"We're not trying to be parents," said Hunter. "We have a very real understanding of the pressures they face now and we really are trying to engage to protect them."