Saturday, 14 February 2009

My first sex test

Who knew getting the all-clear for HIV could be so quick

Getting tested for sexually transmitted diseases is often a mythologised process loaded with rumour and falsehoods. As a member of the male population, about to embark on my first sex test, I inevitably worried about having something Mary Poppins would float from the sky with inserted in a place only a nanny like her should see. Memories of my housemate’s rather crass warning that, “They shove an umbrella up your cock,” circulated in my mind like a hamster on speed.

So it was with trepidation that I walked to Oxford Chambers, an archaic-looking building home to the Terrance Higgins Trust (THT), an HIV and sexual health charity that specialises in fast-track sex tests for students and under-25s. Situated opposite The Light (there’s an analogy in there somewhere but bugger me if I can find it) on Oxford Place the THT runs free sessions twice a week for people who want to be checked for STIs quickly and confidentially. The clinic is famed for its ability to test for HIV in just 15 minutes with only a pinprick of blood.

Naomi, manager of the THT in Leeds explains the ethos behind the clinic: “It’s what we call community testing. So it’s very informal, relaxed environment, separate from NHS clinical services. Your records will be kept completely confidential. It’s a drop-in, with no appointments. You just turn up.”

Once you have just turned up and into the building there is only one route down to the level the THT occupies, via a small lift. The six-foot square space forces a few moments of awkward silences should you be squeezed in with another human pincushion looking for sexual peace of mind – a situation that befell me later in my visit – you can’t really make small talk about HIV.

Any anxiety is offset as soon as I walk through the entrance though. The atmosphere of the THT is very different to NHS services and is one designed to put you at ease. Carpet replaces rubber floors, t-shirt and jeans are worn instead of smocks and radio music plays in place of tannoy announcements.

“The THT in Leeds is unique for people under 25 and students, who are identified as the ‘at-risk’ group,” Naomi tells me later, “It’s very simple for those kinds of people to come along here so the more complex cases can get seen at the GUM clinic.”

“It was set up as a pilot two and a half years ago because the waiting times at GUM were so long. So it’s really for people who haven’t got any symptoms but are concerned about sexual health just because they’re sexually active.”

Without wanting to be too candid it transpires I fall into the group the clinic is specifically aimed at, which helps with the authenticity of this trial run. I ask for a test at the desk and am handed a self-assessment questionnaire determined to work out how much risk I’d put myself at. After liaising over my answers with nurse Laura I was told I was a ‘low-risk’ patient – sigh of relief.
As I enter the consultation room I ask Laura if any dialogue between nurse and testee has ever caused any raised eyebrows: “Nothing shocks us any more! We’ve seen and heard most stories.”
“If people don’t want to disclose information it’s up to them. Sometimes it helps though as they don’t have realistic view of sexually transmitted diseases and talking can help that. People may have false concerns.”

Laura’s easy humour coupled with a warming Yorkshire accent encourages open speaking. Our discussion leaves me feeling fully informed when opting for my tests: a pee-in-a-pot for Chlamydia and the Abbott Determine for HIV.

The latter comes first. “You must be clinically dead,” Laura jokes after feeling my cold hands. A moment of rubbing commences before she braves the jab – a very small scratch – which leads to a few minutes of squeezing blood from the tip of my icy finger before we have enough to dab onto the paper gauge. “It is usually a lot quicker than this,” she offers in mock apology.
15 minutes later and I’m called back for the results. “You’re negative!” I’m told gleefully. A miniscule line in one section of the paper strip compared to another is apparently the difference between being given life-changing news. This quick test can only indicate a positive result and would need to be confirmed by three separate blood tests but it is still a stark illustration of the thin line we sometimes tread in our mission to get laid.

The THT’s other main aim is to reduce the spread of Chlamydia, a disease that’s on the rise in Leeds. According to oft-quoted stats (from a 2007 survey) one in ten under 25s in the UK currently has Chlamydia without being aware, while those in the 16-24 age bracket account for nearly half of all STI diagnoses.

“Part of the reason Chlamydia is so widespread,” Laura explains, “is that most people with the infection have no symptoms, and it only takes one sexual encounter to pass it on. If left untreated Chlamydia can lead to serious health problems, including infertility.”

I gulp in anticipation. “We ask that you haven’t been to the toilet in the last two hours as it takes that period to allow the bacteria to develop – it can give a false negative if enough time hasn’t elapsed.”

Luckily my bladder hadn’t moved in the last 120 minutes so I could produce a sample in full knowledge that the results would be accurate. Delivering into the small cylindrical container is a bit of a logistical challenge - ‘How to hold? When to release?’ - but one managed after only the briefest of struggles . I chirpily drop the package off at reception afterwards.

On the clientel of the THT, Laura says: “We often get couples in, who’ve just started a sexual relationship and want to get a full scan together. We also get groups of friends come in together, which is great because it gets people talking about sexual health.”

“Last year Valentine’s Night fell on a Thursday and it was packed!” she says, “Ther­e were couples, groups of girls and boys. Freshers’ Week is always a busy time, we usually get through 25 tests a night during that period.”

As I make my excuses to leave I’m offered bountiful condoms, lube and a C card, a bit of merchandise that entitles any under-25 to free condoms and morning after pills at certain outlets. Useful.

At the time of going to press my mobile remained eerily silent on the matter of Chlamydia. By the time you’re reading this I will hopefully know though, buy me a drink in the Old Bar if you’re intrigued.

The THT operates on Mondays and Thursdays, 4pm till 8pm. They ask people to try to arrive by 7pm as the whole appointment can take up to an hour, after waiting to be seen and getting your results.

There is a special Chlamydia Screening on Briggate, Friday 13, look out for the big tent. Visit for more info.

Originally published in Leeds Student on February 13 2009

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