Young women asking for the morning-after pill at pharmacies will be offered fast-tracked screening for Chlamydia, the UK's most common sexually transmitted infection, in a University of Manchester study.
It is thought that up to one in ten young people under 25 have Chlamydia, a sexually transmitted infection that often has no symptoms and can lead to infertility, although it is very easily treated with just one dose of four tablets in the majority of cases.
With 18,000 women going to pharmacies for emergency contraception each year, it is hoped that the study will identify and help a previously unknown and potentially large population at risk of sexually transmitted infections - young women who may not use family planning clinics or go to their GPs for contraception, where they would be offered Chlamydia screening.
The women requesting emergency contraception will be given a discreet plain purple box, containing a bottle for their urine sample, free postage and a confidential questionnaire offering them a variety of ways they can receive their diagnosis within three working days. If they are found to have Chlamydia, they and their partner will then be referred to a genito-urinary clinic of their choice for full sexual health screening and treatment. The whole process from test to treatment should be completed in just two weeks.
The study is in response to a Department of Health drive for Primary Care Trusts to offer Chlamydia screening to under 25s in non genito-urinary clinic settings by April 2006. The University of Manchester study, to be launched on 3 January 2006 and funded by The BUPA Foundation, hopes to screen 2,000 women at pharmacies. Chlamydia screening will be offered to another 1,000 women asking for emergency contraception at family planning clinics and 400 asking for it at the Manchester Brook Advisory Service. Thus important information will be gathered for the planning of screening in the Greater Manchester NHS region and possibly throughout the UK.
Dr Loretta Brabin, of the Division of Human Development and Reproduction at the University's School of Medicine, founded the study. She explained: "This could identify and thus treat a potentially huge unknown population at risk of untreated Chlamydia."
She added: "The study will not add to the workload of pharmacies - indeed pharmacists are supposed to advise women asking for emergency contraception about sexually transmitted infection. Now they can give them a direct offer of help.
"The study will gather confidential information on the previous STI treatment of clients attending various contraception outlets for the morning-after pill, and their risk of being infected. It will also find out how many women going to pharmacies take the test kit home and how many post it back - that is, whether this is a good system. A good uptake could facilitate further schemes which are this convenient."
Research nurse Grace Thomas, who is running the study has worked in a busy sexual health clinic in Manchester, agreed: "This is also a great help for women who may be concerned about sexually transmitted infections. Looking at the number of young women going to pharmacies, there is a huge potential there; people at risk of STIs and not tapping into the more traditional healthcare services available.
"Chlamydia really is so simple to treat, in most cases four tablets there and then and, as long as your partner is treated too, that is the end of it. So I would encourage young women to take the test kit and post it back - it is to their benefit."