In 2021, Hivpoint’s Tracy development project conducted a survey for men who have sex with men. The survey examined how the tracing of STIs works in Finland and how the respondents would like it to be implemented in the future. 105 person answered to the survey.
The respondents had an active sex life and they got tested for STIs frequently
Among the respondents, the most typical number of sexual partners in the past year was 2–10 or 11–50 persons. The respondents searched for a sexual partner in different ways, but the most popular way to apply for a sexual partner was through dating apps.
More than half of the respondents got tested for STIs at least every six months, 22 per cent at least once a year and 27 per cent more than once a year. Those who had more than ten sexual partners during the year went to STI tests clearly more often than those who had fewer partners. More than a quarter of the respondents had been diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases in the past two years. The most common of the confirmed infections was chlamydia. The number of confirmed sexually transmitted infections was higher among those respondents who had had more sexual partners in the past year.
Half of those who had an STI had between 2 and 5 sexual partners who had potentially been exposed to the infection. About 11 percent thought that 6 to 10 sexual partners would have been exposed to the infection and 11 percent responded that they did not have any sexual partners exposed to STI.
Infection tracing was rarely handled in public health care
Respondents who had an STI were asked how infection tracing, i.e. notification of possible infection to sexual partners, was handled. The majority had reported possible exposure to their sexual partners by themself: this was the case for almost 80% of the respondents. Most often self-reporting was done by those who had had more sexual partners. Based on the contact information provided, the testing site handled the tracing of the infection in whole or in part only for two respondents. Three of the respondents replied that no infection tracing was done at all.
Sexual partners were pleased that they were told about the possible STI exposure
Those respondents who had self-reported their partners that they had been exposed to an STI, were asked what means of communication they used to inform their sexual partners. The methods of communication were, in order of preference, as follows: SMS or WhatsApp (80%), messaging application, eg. Messenger (55%), dating app, eg. Grindr or Romeo (45%), by phone (25%), face-to-face (20%) and email (5%).
Most of the sexual partners were pleased that they were informed about the matter or took a neutral attitude towards the matter. Only 10% did not receive any response from the person they had reported. None of those who reported to their sexual partners about possible exposure to an STI faced accusations for spreading an STI, or none of the partners were upset about possibly being exposed to an STI. The most common reason why all sexual partners were not notified of exposure to STI was that their contact details were not available. Lastly, all those infected with STIs were asked how they would like STI traces to be handled. Around 83% of respondents wanted to inform their partners themselves by contacting them in person, around 29% wanted to report using an anonymous web-based reporting service, and around 17% wanted the testing/treating health care center to report the issue based on the contact details of the infected person.
A web-based notification form was supported
Respondents of the Tracy-survey were asked if they would use an anonymous web-based reporting form that could anonymously notify a sexual partner of exposure if such a possibility existed, and whether respondents would like to be notified via an online service if they had potentially been exposed to an STI.
77% of respondents would use an anonymous web-based reporting form, around six per cent said they would not, and 17 per cent replied that they could not say. If they had been exposed to an STI infection, the majority, up to 86 percent of the respondents, would want to be informed about trough an anonymous web-based reporting channel! Five per cent of the respondents did not want information in this way and about 10 per cent did not know their position on the matter.
Despite the potential challenges, an anonymous report form was considered a good idea
Potential threats of the anonymous web-based reporting form were the potential security risks, privacy protection and the possibility of abuse for bullying purposes.
However, the list of positive aspects was longer, and the anonymous web-based reporting option was considered as a good idea. The advantages of such service was considered to be its speed and ease, the lowering of the reporting threshold, the speed of seeking testing and, in general, the fact that it would increase the reporting of STIs to sexual partners. Some of the respondents commented on communal issues, such as in the comments “I think it’s about everyone’s common safety and sexual health, so such a service would be very functional” and “Benefit greatly to gay people”. A few expressed their support for the new service briefly, such as “just a good idea” and in English “Go for it!”
Hivpoint’s Tracy project (2021–2023) is developing and piloting an STIs tracing application that allows sexual partners to anonymously report exposure to an STI. The infection tracing app will enter the test phase during 2023.