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Mon October 28, 2013
Meet the Woman Who Tells Your Exes They May Have an STD
Public health officials are trying to stop a series of gonorrhea outbreaks in the Northwest. And they’re offering a service to infected patients: anonymous notification of former sexual partners.
That's right. There is a government worker out there whose job it is to call, text, Facebook or track down your exes to let them know they might have an STD. The job has become a key part of controlling disease outbreaks.
The Woman Who Tracks Down Your Exes
Anna Halloran is kind of like a private investigator.
“You know, I’ve gone to places where homeless people gather. I’ve patrolled the streets of downtown looking for somebody. I’d say, being able to track someone down like that is really satisfying for me,” Halloran said.
But Halloran doesn’t tell people much about her job, because, well, no one really wants to talk about it.
“I notify people that they may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted infection,” she said.
Halloran works out of a small, third-floor office at the Spokane Regional Health District. She’s one of a couple dozen people around the Northwest who work behind the scenes to try to halt the spread of STDs. It’s a job that involves a lot of really awkward phone calls.
One such awkward call might go something like this: “So, I’m calling for kind of an unusual reason. I’m calling to let you know you may have been exposed to gonorrhea. And I know that this is some difficult news to get …”
Why Her Job?
Halloran’s job is based on the fact that many people who have an STD don’t know it, especially when it comes to gonorrhea. It can have very few symptoms until it creates a serious health problem, like pelvic inflammatory disease or infertility.
Patients diagnosed with an STD can opt to give Halloran a list of their sexual partners from the last 90 days, and she’ll deliver the news to them.
“Some people cry. Some people get really angry. Some people don’t want to talk to me at all. A lot of people are really anxious to know who it was. Of course, I can’t say anything that would identify that,” Halloran said.
Now, you might be wondering: Isn’t it the patient’s job to notify ex-partners?
“Well, the first thing would be that people don’t necessarily do that,” said Jocelyn Warren, researcher at Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. She says studies show couples, especially young ones, don’t communicate about their sexual histories.
A Spike in Number of Gonorrhea Cases
Warren says over the years, partner notification services have been adopted as standard practice for curbing outbreaks. Now, gonorrhea is especially making public health officials nervous.
“It does seem that gonorrhea evolves pretty rapidly to be resistant. We’re not seeing drug resistant gonorrhea now, but there certainly there is an expectation that it’s just a matter of time,” Warren said.
Other countries, however, are seeing drug-resistant gonorrhea. Just last month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control released a report identifying a form of “super gonorrhea” as an urgent threat.
In the Northwest, Washington has seen a 34 percent increase in gonorrhea cases over this time last year. Spokane, Benton, Yakima, Kitsap and Thurston counties are in the midst of a full on outbreak.
At the Spokane Regional Health District, Halloran says health officials are still trying to explain the increase.
“You know, I wait for the time when our numbers go down. But I have to keep thinking of it as…think of what the case rates would be like if we weren’t doing this work,” she said.
Halloran says one thing she’s learned from seeing the messy side of people’s relationships: STDs pop up in every demographic.
Oh, and Halloran says, so far no one has asked her to dump their partner for them.
“No, that would be a first,” she said.
Halloran says she’s not in the business of breakups.
“No, I don’t do breakups,” she said, laughing.