By: Danae Roumis for Uterus1
A recent team of researchers surveyed the internet to observe the availability of self-treatments for Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). The internet may provide some privacy to patients who are intimidated by the stigma associated with sexually transmitted diseases, but purchasing treatments online may expose the patient - and the public - to even greater risk of infection.
The study took place at the University of East Anglia’s School of Medicine, Health Policy and Practice, by Dr. Roberto Vivancos, Dr. Yoon Loke, and Dr. Silke Schelenz, and was published in the journal Biomedcentral Public Health in November 2007. Their results revealed 52 different companies based mostly in the United States and the United Kingdom, including popular sites such as eBay, advertising approximately 77 treatments on the internet for STIs such as genital warts, herpes, gonorrhea, and Chlamydia. The price of these internet remedies ranges from about 10 to 286 U.S. dollars.
The majority of treatments neglect to provide buyers with relevant information about the medication and the infection: less than a fourth of the internet vendors offer details about side effects, interactions with other prescription medicines, potential harm to pregnant or nursing women, or proper advice about avoiding transmission and re-infection. The researchers also found that although about half of the products claim to be effective, hardly any solid evidence supports those claims.
Dr. Roberto Vivancos commented that “Patients nowadays can easily buy kits from the internet to test themselves for sexually transmitted infections and they may be tempted to do the same when they need treatment.” But he and the other researchers warned that this poses a public health hazard, since the vendors do not provide preventive advice such as the use of condoms, abstinence while on the course of the medication, notification of the sexual partner, and testing for other STIs. If patients are foregoing a consultation with their physician to retain their privacy, they are risking incomplete or incorrect treatment. Remedies will fail if both sexual partners are not treated, since infection will occur repeatedly. Both men and women are at risk for becoming infertile if either Chlamydia or gonorrhea is improperly treated. Dr. Vivancos further explains, “Treatment of sexually transmitted infections is not a simple one-off step of popping the pills or slapping on the creams. Some of these remedies will inevitably fail if sexual partners are not treated and if patients don't take steps to avoid re-infection.” These factors contribute to the spread of the disease among the public.
The study explains that licensed drugs are tightly regulated and come with government approved information leaflets that help patients check that the medication is safe and suitable for them - this may not be the case for purchases made on the internet. The active ingredients in these internet remedies vary considerably, and there is not enough information at present to judge which are effective. The researchers wrote: “We consider the paucity of preventive health advice to be a serious omission, thereby leading to patients being needlessly exposed to, and potentially re-infected with the causative pathogens…The absence of [essential public health advice on prevention and control of transmission] will negate the expected benefits on any treatment.”
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in the UK said it campaigned to raise awareness of the dangers of buying medicines from unlicensed internet sites. The researchers recommend that government agencies use the same search engines that are used by potential customers of internet remedies to ensure that searches return links to promotional sites warning of the dangers of self-treatment and giving appropriate information. Whether governments intervene, or stricter regulations are imposed on vendors, it is best to speak with a physician if you suspect you may have a sexually transmitted infection.