The last time I was single was 1995. It might not sound like that long ago, but from a technology standpoint it was practically the Stone Age; google was still just a number, Mark Zuckerberg was in elementary school, and only birds tweeted. The most advanced technology available to me was a beeper and an answering machine. So I might not know all that much about dating in the era of social networking and smart phones, but nonetheless the newest entry into this market strikes me as inefficient and
a little creepy.
Earlier this week, a new site launched that mixes social networking with sexually transmitted disease (STD) testing, with a splash of online dating thrown in for fun. The site is called MyLuhu.com, and the model is a little complicated (as evidence by 31 frequently asked questions on the site). But it boils down to this: A single person can join Luhu for $92 upfront and then $10 a month. The site has partnered with Quest Diagnostic, a nationwide chain of laboratories, which will provide members with quarterly tests for HIV, hepatitis C, and syphilis. Members can choose to be tested for other STDs as well. If the tests come back negative, members receive a badge that proves they are healthy. They can share their test results with other members or put the badge on their Facebook page or other social media sites. If the tests come back positive, they get a call from a counselor; they get no badge and their results are not kept on the site. If members let their testing slip and don’t have current results to share, their badge turns to amber.
The main goal of the site is to give single people a way to confidentially and reliably share test results. The site is HIPPA-compliant and has no paperwork. The results are stored electronically and are “locked” so they are only available to the member and anyone the member chooses to share them with. The shared results come with the member’s first name and birth date as a way to verify that the person is being honest, and the FAQs point out that the laboratory requires identification at the time of the test so results can’t be faked. Shared results are only available to the recipient for 24 hours.
There is an element of the site’s underlying philosophy here that I really like. The founders say they want to make STD testing a more regular part of everyone’s lives, take away some of the stigma and awkwardness, and reward those who are invested in their sexual health. In fact, a member can make a profile on Luhu and search for others who have done the same, thus being sure they are finding someone who also values good sexual health. That’s great. I applaud efforts to increase testing and believe making sexual health a point of pride for individuals is a great goal.
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Unfortunately, I think the site fails in its execution, and I have real doubts about its widespread appeal.
First, I don’t believe it actually succeeds at its method of proof that someone is disease-free, because it relies on a quarterly check for three STDs, and not even those that are the most common. Members earn a green badge for being free of HIV, syphilis, and hepatitis C; the founders of the site say they chose to focus on these because they are the most life-changing and life-threatening. I am not sure these should be the criteria by which one ranks which STDs to test for, nor am I sure that I agree with the site’s assessment of which diseases are the most life-changing or even most life-threatening.
Syphilis, for example, made their list, but only an estimated 45 people died from syphilis in 2011. Human papillomavirus (HPV) did not make the site’s list, which makes sense in one way
because most people who get it don’t even know they have it and clear the infection within one or two years without any intervention. But if you look at it from another angle, HPV causes over 20,000 cases of cancer each year, which can be both life-changing and life-threatening. Herpes, which is far more common than the three STDs that are routinely tested on Luhu, is left off the list in part because “it is a disease that is, overall, not deadly, and can be suppressed with medication.” Again, I take issue with the criteria—at this point few STDs are deadly, and even HIV can be suppressed with medication for decades.
Moreover, I have a sinking suspicion that these criteria were chosen based on ease of testing. In fact, the FAQs note that herpes and HPV are both left off the mandatory list in part because testing is difficult. There is a blood test for herpes, but it returns many false positives. And it is better to diagnose herpes with an exam during an outbreak; this can’t be done quarterly in a lab. Testing for HPV in women involves pap smears and other tests, which take cells from the cervix, something that also cannot be done in a lab. And, as of now, there are no tests for HPV in men.
Chlamydia and gonorrhea, however, can be tested for using a urine analysis, which can be done in a lab, so I’m less sure of why the founders chose not to include these in their badge-earning criteria. After all, these are among the most commonly reported and easily transmitted STDs, and are often asymptomatic, which means testing is the only way individuals will find out they are infected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are 2.86 million new cases of chlamydia and 820,000 new cases of gonorrhea each year, compared to 55,400 cases of syphilis and 41,400 cases of HIV. Sure, if they are caught they can be cured with antibiotics without causing any long-term health issues, but if they are left undetected and untreated they can lead to pelvic inflammatory diseases and then infertility. While this might not be deadly, it is certainly life-changing for many couples. To me, these diseases seem like perfect candidates for frequent testing and badges.
The “clean” badge has another problem as well: It’s a snapshot in time. A quarterly test is great, but if I am about to sleep with someone in May, the fact that he was free of three STDs at the end of March doesn’t mean very much if he engaged in a lot
of risky behavior in between. I worry that between covering only a few of the STDs out there and showing results that may no longer be relevant, the badges will actually present people with a false sense of security or, worse, an excuse not to use condoms with their new partner.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting more frequent testing. The founders of Luhu claim monthly testing as an ideal, but that seems excessive, unless you are in a very high-risk pool. Instead, I think I like the way we did it in the old days before any of us had an app for that: We talked. We asked each other about our risks. We asked if we’d been tested. We got tested again and shared the results. And, until we knew each other well enough to trust that the other was disease-free and not continuing to engage in any risky behaviors, we took universal precautions and used a condom every time.
I’m all for technology. I check Facebook constantly and can’t believe I ever watched TV without being able to pause it. But when it comes to STDs, I can’t help but wonder if we would do best to leave the digital world in our pocket and just talk.