More than 1,800 home test kits for STIs have been given out in Cork, Kerry and Dublin in just over a week by the HSE, as "pent-up demand" follows clinic closures due to Covid-19.
This is the second time this year the HSE has run this pilot. The launch in early January saw 4,921 orders flood the service in less than 24 hours. It had to temporarily pause the project while overwhelmed clinics caught up with those orders.
Now up and running again, the demand continues at a much higher rate than has been seen in other countries offering this programme, according to the HSE.
Anyone with an address in Cork, Kerry or Dublin can order a test. Free follow-up services are available at HSE clinics in Cork and Dublin only.
These three counties were chosen to “ensure a mix of urban and rural settings”. It is hoped after data evaluation the free kits can be offered nationally.
People order the tests online, post in the samples and results arrive by text or phone call.
A HSE spokeswoman said the online system would speed up access to testing. In the first three months of this year, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre recorded 2,450 cases of STIs.
But in the same period last year, just before the pandemic hit, they recorded 3,740 cases, and in 2019 the count was 3,570.
Chlamydia was the most commonly identified STI each year. HIV, gonorrhoea and syphilis were also found.
Reduced socialising and travel “may have led to reduced sexual activity and a reduction in the number of those requiring STI testing”, said a spokeswoman for the HSE’s Sexual Health unit.
However, she also pointed to the significantly reduced access to testing within public STI services as an issue.
“There is at least an expectation that increased testing will bring increased diagnoses,” she said.
Almost all sexual health services closed during the first wave of Covid-19 infections – this changed later in the year although a full service was still not offered.
And in January, clinics had to restrict services again or even close completely, she said. This is because so many public clinics are located in hospitals.
Executive director HIV Ireland Stephen O’Hare sits on the steering group for the pilot programme.
He said the huge orders for the kits this week reflect a “pent-up demand” among people who would normally attend a clinic. And links to the project website are “moving quickly” on social media, he said.
Online tests could also reach people who may be reluctant to attend a family GP for sexual health reasons, he said, including younger people or members of the trans community.
And looking beyond the impact of the lockdowns on clinics, Mr O’ Hare called for the project to continue.
“The evidence indicates self-testing can have a real influence on identifying where transmission is occurring. We do think there is a national demand for this service,” he said.
Tests can be ordered at www.sh24.ie