New Service in Washington State Anonymously Notifies Sexual Partners of Those Diagnosed with Gonorrhea

| by Dominic Kelly

If you’ve ever had the experience of being diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease, you probably know how difficult it is to tell your partner that they have probably been exposed to it or already have it themselves. With gonorrhea on the rise and the antibiotic normally used to treat it becoming ineffective, health officials are worried that if people aren’t treated, they will continue to spread it. So, what’s their solution? They’ll notify your partner for you.

The Spokane Regional Health District in Washington state has a new service that allows those diagnosed with gonorrhea to have their partners notified anonymously. Anna Halloran, an employee at Spokane Regional Health District, describes the process to NPR.

"So I'll ask, 'Is this Jessica?' And then I would ask your birthday, and if that matches what I have, I would say, 'I'm calling from the Spokane Regional Health District. And I'm calling to let you know that you may have been exposed to gonorrhea,’” says Halloran. “And then, I would pause for a little bit. Then I would ask what the person I'm talking to knows about gonorrhea."

"I feel a big sense of accomplishment when I've found somebody after I've been looking for them for weeks," admits Halloran, who says she will turn to snail mail, texting, email, Facebook, and even tracking them down in person if she can’t reach them by phone.

"Some people cry, some people get really angry, some people don't want to talk to me at all," continues Halloran to NPR. "A lot of people are really anxious to know who it was [who gave them the infection]. Of course, I can't say anything whatsoever that would identify that."

Another Washington state health system is offering the same service to their patients. David Miller of the Yakima Health District says that his job is to track down the patient’s partner and inform them that they may have been exposed to the disease and that they should be tested.

"We make a phone call to the person who was diagnosed and talk to them about any partners they had in the past 60 days prior to treatment and their current sex partners," says Miller. After discussing it with the patient, they are then able to reach out to their partners anonymously.

Gonorrhea has become increasingly drug-resistant recently, and the numbers of diagnoses are continuing to rise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention averages that around 820,000 Americans are diagnosed with gonorrhea every year. Doctors don’t want to take any chances with the disease spreading even more, so they say the new approach in the northwest is an asset.

"Drug resistance has become a major problem with the entire public health effort to halt the spread, and so gonorrhea has achieved new priority," says Dr. Williams Schaffner of Vanderbilt University, adding that the new program is important but not easy.

"It's very labor intensive, and there is no easy way to do this," said Dr. Schaffner. "It's being a disease detective, and you have to do it in an exceedingly diplomatic way."

The new program hasn’t caught on in other states just yet, but as word of this service spreads, it’s safe to assume that many will jump on board.