‘Partner notification’: Difficult but critical to end HIV
Partner notification (otherwise known as ‘contact tracing’) is the process of informing or notifying people of their potential exposure to HIV or another sexually transmitted infection (STI) so that they can be offered testing, counselling, and treatment if they need it.
It’s not easy. It’s usually difficult and sometimes embarrassing to have that chat with a friend, lover or fuck buddy, to tell them you’ve been diagnosed with an STI and that they might also be infected. While STIs are a risk for anyone who is sexually active, sometimes we don’t know we’ve picked up an STI because the symptoms can be hidden. If we’ve been exposed, the caring thing to do is to get tested and alert our partners of their potential exposure.
We know that people living with undiagnosed and untreated HIV present one of the greatest risks of onward transmission of the virus. Supporting people to get tested then treated, reduces onward transmission. For anyone diagnosed with HIV, starting treatment for HIV immediately is ideal for their best long term health outcome. For the wellbeing of our sexual partners, they also need to be tested and treated if they have acquired an STI or HIV. For all of us, the main strategy to end HIV is get tested, know your status, and take control of your health.
Earlier this year, Positive Life NSW conducted a survey to better understand the experiences of people living with or without HIV when they notify their sexual partners either of STIs or risk of HIV. The aim of the survey was to identify what methods of notification people preferred, and also establish the information and support needs of anyone newly diagnosed.
The survey confirmed that for most people, telling friends, lovers and fuck buddies of their potential exposure to HIV or another STI was difficult, mostly because of embarrassment and the stigma caused by the disclosure. Many people also told us they didn’t know how to contact partners, what to do, or they were given insufficient information or resources to tell their partners. Fortunately, the survey confirmed that whenever partner notification occurred it resulted in high rates of partners getting tested.
From the survey we know people need peer-developed resources to support them notifying partners, and that those resources need to provide practical ‘how to’ information. We also found that resources need to acknowledge people’s different preferences for notifying partners, and provide information in relation to each of those preferences. Training and education for medical professionals and health care workers is also needed with greater consistency on how partner notification is managed.
Strengthened arrangements for partner notification are crucial to the best health for people with HIV as well as supporting efforts to end the virus. The involvement of people living with HIV in designing and carrying out those arrangements is critical to strengthening this process.