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Pharmacy warnings over ‘sex disease’ – but why tell us now?

October 16th, 2006

Dr Petra

Some of the papers today carried results of a survey of 562 women and 531 men by Boots pharmacy.

Results indicated most male participants (in this sample) had never been tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and knew little about them. News coverage claimed this was in spite of 80% women knowing chlamydia could cause infertility – although it wasn’t clear if this result came from the Boots survey or somewhere else.

My question about this research is twofold: why are they telling us this information, and why now?

Because this isn’t a groundbreaking new finding. Countless existing qualitative and quantitative studies into sexual health in the UK, US and Western Europe have consistently indicated men and women don’t know the symptoms of many STIs and both genders incorrectly believe that chlamydia is only an infection that affects women.

The press coverage didn’t raise this (although they have covered similar stories in the past year). Instead newspapers unhelpfully implied chlamydia makes women infertile. Left untreated, chlamydia can cause infertility, but if it’s caught and treated early then women should be fine. No press coverage explained this. Whilst some explained that chlamydia could be easily identified with a urine test, none highlighted that treatment is also easy and effective – or that condom use was a means of protecting against STIs.

So it’s not clear why Boots felt we needed to know this – or why they revealed a finding that they should already be familiar with.

Boots are currently involved in a pilot study to assess testing of chlamydia in the under 25s via a urine test. You pick up a test kit from the pharmacy, return your sample and if it turns out positive they let you know and treat you with antibiotics. This pilot hasn’t been fully evaluated yet, and when it is completed you should expect it to be published in a peer-reviewed medical journal so professionals can judge and possibly make use of the findings (depending what they are).

It is unusual and not good practice to reveal results from a pilot study whilst it is still ongoing and hasn’t been published. And it is also poor practice to repeat research that’s already been completed (unless you’re adding a new twist to it – which this survey did not). In fact it seemed like they’d not consulted any of the existing evidence.

So why did Boots publicise these findings today? If it was to promote their chlamydia pilot or a testing service you would have thought they would have mentioned this – but no coverage made this link at all. We might forgive them for poor practice if they were drawing our attention to a useful in-store service. But it seems from the coverage all they were doing was plugging their brand name. And that, along with reporting on research-in-progress (and relying on a telephone survey that didn’t acknowledge well-known evidence) just adds up to bad sexual health research.

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