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  • • Partner notification is an important component of treating patients for most sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
  • • Partner notification for syphilis, HIV, and possibly hepatitis B is usually best done by collaborating with experts from the local health department.
  • • Partner notification is also a priority for gonorrhea, chlamydia, trichomoniasis, nongonococcal urethritis, and pelvic inflammatory disease, although patients will usually need to notify partners themselves after appropriate coaching.
  • • Some patients resist notification out of fear of losing a relationship or because a relationship has already ended.
  • • Emphasizing the health benefits helps patients initiate and successfully complete notification, thereby improving their own health, the health of partners, and the health of the community.

Tracing partners of patients with STDs has been done for centuries but was first introduced on a national scale by Surgeon General Thomas Parran as part of his five-point plan to control syphilis in 1937. At the time, syphilis was killing about 20,000 people per year in the United States. Parran’s campaign, and the subsequent discovery of penicillin, led to a nadir in syphilis rates in 1956. As rates dropped, health department efforts expanded beyond partners to test other people in the patient’s social network, but decreases in funding were followed by increasing rates of syphilis and periodic epidemics. Meanwhile a gonorrhea control campaign began in the 1970s, a chlamydia campaign began in the 1990s, genital herpes was increasingly diagnosed, human papillomavirus was linked to cervical cancer, and HIV infection appeared.

With an estimated 19 million new STDs each year in the United States, the most common approach to partner notification has become denial. Patients and clinicians who know the importance of treating partners may ignore it because they are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the process. Becoming familiar with the partner notification process can help overcome this denial and improve the patient’s health.

Partner notification involves talking to patients with STDs about approaches to testing and treating their partners. Ideally, exposed partners can be cured before they develop complications or become infectious and transmit disease to others. Health department assistance with notification is not available for all STDs. Health departments seek active involvement in addressing syphilis and, to a slightly lesser extent, HIV. Some health departments will try to notify some partners of people with hepatitis B, gonorrhea, or chlamydia. For many STDs, however, patients are responsible for notifying their own partners. Most patients wonder what to do about their partners and appreciate advice from their physicians.

Patients benefit when their partners are notified. Patients who have been cured are susceptible to reinfection; untreated partners pose a risk to patients who have been treated for syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, or trichomoniasis. Patients with chronic infections such as HIV can obtain social support from partners who become aware of their infection. Finally, most infected persons want what is best for their partners, and thus want them to be aware of their exposure because ...

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