Mobile Phones That Test for STIs Could Increase Infection Rates

Is lowering the gonorrhea rate worth risking an increase in HIV?

British firms have sunk millions into new technology which will enable people to test themselves for Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) using their mobile phones and a chip they purchase for less than $2. The motivation behind the initiative is to encourage STI testing with a goal to reducing the nation’s high STI transmission rates among the younger population.  A worthwhile goal, but what happens if the test leads to riskier sex? If it does, then the investors will have overestimated the new technologies benefit to society.

Essentially, this is how investors in this product envisage its usage: A young man or woman who is concerned they have an STI, but is nervous about going to a (free) clinic to be tested, will go a buy a chip (for about $2) to self-test. They will either pee or spit on the chip and then insert it into their mobile phone. In a matter of moments the nanotechnology in their phone will tell them if they have an STI. This will cause them to go to the same clinic they were too nervous to go to moments before to be treated. Perhaps, on the way, they will stop to notify their recent sexual partners that they have been exposed to an STI so they too can pee on a chip and insert it into their phone. Our hero will then only practise safe sex until they are certain they are clear of infection (perhaps they will buy another chip to determine this). Before you know it, the nation’s STI rate has been cut in half (this is, in fact, their prediction).

Here is how I envisage this product’s usage. A young man or woman has met someone in a nightclub with whom they would really like to have unprotected sex. They buy the chip at a vending machine in the club, as this is where investors intend to sell the chips, and insert it into their phone.  There are two possible outcomes.  The first is that discover that they are not infected with either of the diseases the phone can identify (chlamydia or gonorrhea) and they use this information to signal to their potential sexual partner that safe sex is not necessary. Their potential partner can then make a judgement as to whether or not a condom is necessary.

If people use the phone to signal their infection status and, as a result, condomless sex increases then maybe the infection rate of the diseases the phone detects falls, but the diseases the phone does not detect—syphilis and HIV just to name two—would increase along with unwanted pregnancies.

The second possible outcome is just as concerning: The individual discovers that they do have an STI. I am not a medical doctor, but my guess is that patients feel pretty devastated when they are told they had an STI. Is it really good practice for people to receive this information late at night, in a nightclub when they are probably under the influence of alcohol? (This isn’t really an economic issue, but it worries me.)

The main point here is that before we argue that an innovation in technology will improve an outcome for society, we have to recognize that people often change their behaviour in light of new technology. 

In this case, that behavior change could come with a very high price tag. Is lowering the gonorrhea rate worth risking an increase in HIV? Maybe it is, but the question at least needs to be asked.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.

This is the best (and simplest) world map of religions

Both panoramic and detailed, this infographic manages to show both the size and distribution of world religions.

(c) CLO / Carrie Osgood
Strange Maps
  • At a glance, this map shows both the size and distribution of world religions.
  • See how religions mix at both national and regional level.
  • There's one country in the Americas without a Christian majority – which?
Keep reading Show less
Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Do human beings have a magnetic sense? Biologists know other animals do. They think it helps creatures including bees, turtles and birds navigate through the world.

Keep reading Show less