The XX Factor

“I’m Calling to Let You Know That You May Have Been Exposed to Gonorrhea”

“Yes, sure, I’ll give you a minute.”

In the annals of uncomfortable conversations that most people hope never to have, “calling your exes to tell them you have an STI” ranks at least in the top five. Luckily, for the taxpaying citizens of eastern Washington, help is on the way. As reported by NPR, the Spokane Regional Health District has instituted a program where, if you test positive for a sexually transmitted infection, their social workers will do the hard work of finding your former sex partners and calling them to let them know they’ve been exposed to this disease. One worker, Anna Halloran, described the process:

“So I’ll ask, ‘Is this Jessica?’ ” Halloran says. “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.’

“And then, I would pause for a little bit,” says Halloran. “Then I would ask what the person I’m talking to knows about gonorrhea.”

This program is fantastic and needs to be instituted everywhere immediately. This is a clear-cut example of the taxpayers really getting their money’s worth from government programs. Indeed, why stop at the STI discussion? Why not have social workers on hand to conduct all sorts of unpleasant conversations for you? Do you have a colleague whose personal hygiene needs to be addressed? Want to explain to your parents why you can’t make it home for every single holiday? Don’t know how to tell your kid that Skippy the dog did not actually go live with a nice farmer in the country? You’re a taxpaying citizen! Let the government handle that one for you. 

Oh sure, we can already hear the protestations from our friends on the right, whose fanatical devotion to some abstract notion of “personal responsibility” is such that they’d rather everyone get the clap than spare a single person from making an unpleasant phone call. Sadly for them, the experts with all their “research” and “experience” have an answer for that concern.

Now, you might be wondering: Shouldn’t it be the patient’s job to notify ex-partners?

“People don’t necessarily do that,” says Jocelyn Warren, a public health researcher at Oregon State University. Studies show that couples — especially young couples — don’t communicate about their sexual histories. (Surprise, surprise!) And telling an ex about an STD infection can be especially “difficult,” Warren says.

All jokes aside, infectious diseases don’t care if you’ve reached a point of emotional maturity where you can tackle life’s more difficult conversations with aplomb. Having a third party make the phone call you may not be able to make yourself is a simple, effective way of preventing people who may have infectious diseases from infecting more people. Half of new STI infections are among Americans ages 15-24, an age where having these kinds of loaded conversations is especially difficult. Good for Spokane, and let’s hope this program spreads across the country faster than chlamydia.