George Mason University
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George Mason University

Many College Students Aren’t Tested for STIs Despite High Rates, Self-Tests Offer Promise

October 13, 2020   /   by Danielle Hawkins

New George Mason University study highlights opportunity to increase testing for sexually transmitted infections among this high-risk population

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are at record levels in the United States, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting recent “steep and sustained” increases.  STIs are particularly common among young adults (aged 18-24 years), yet most sexually active college students have never been tested. This presents an urgent challenge, as well as a unique opportunity, for universities to increase STI testing among their students.  

New research led by George Mason University’s College of Health and Human Services found that the vast majority of sexually active students (88%) said they were "likely" or "extremely likely" to use STI self-testing services if they could take a test kit home and test themselves in the privacy of their own home/residence, while 59% said they would use STI self-testing services if they could test themselves in a private room at Student Health Services.

Dr. Lisa Lindley led the study published in the Journal of American College Health this week. This is the first study to explore college students’ comfort with and intention to use self-collection STI testing services on campus, and to identify students’ questions and concerns about the “self-testing” process before offering the service.

The researchers conducted an online survey of more than 400 students at a large mid-Atlantic university to assess their HIV/STI testing behaviors, comfort with self-collection procedures, and intention to use self-collection services for STI testing if offered on campus.

“We already know that in settings where self-collection options have been made available, there have been significant increases in testing and the detection of STIs,” explains Lindley. “This presents an opportunity to increase the detection of asymptomatic infections among sexually active students who traditionally don’t get tested, link these students to care, and prevent further transmission, as well as harmful health outcomes of untreated infections.”

Students who were older (25+ years), lived off campus, and identified as “lesbian, gay, bisexual, or an identity other than heterosexual” were significantly more likely to have ever been tested for HIV and other STIs than students who were younger (18–24 years), lived on campus, and identified as heterosexual.

“We hope to be able to offer STI self-testing options on campus in the near future and encourage other universities to consider the same, as we found that most students, regardless of age, sexual experience, and previous testing experience, were interested in self-testing,” explains Lindley. “These findings are especially timely during the COVID-19 pandemic, as access to HIV/STI testing in traditional settings has become more challenging and the CDC is recommending at-home HIV tests.”

Collection of specimens for some of the most common STIs (chlamydia and gonorrhea) as well as those for HIV can easily be collected by most people. Tests for others—such as syphilis, genital herpes, and human papilloma virus (HPV)—will continue to be conducted by clinicians due to the procedures required for sample collection.

The study offers important takeaways not just regarding the use of self-testing services among asymptomatic students, but also for increasing STI testing in clinical settings more broadly. It suggests that college students may be more likely to pursue STI testing if their contact with clinical staff could be reduced. Lindley recommends using online registration and sexual risk assessments, where appropriate, to collect necessary information and reduce interactions students find particularly embarrassing.

Funding for this project was provided by George Mason University through an OSCAR Undergraduate Research Scholars Program (URSP) award to the second author, A’isha M. Sharif (BS Community Health ‘18). URSP awards are designed to give undergraduates an authentic research, creative, or scholarly experience under the guidance of a faculty mentor. Tasnuva Chowdhury (MPH ‘18), the third author, was a graduate student assistant on the project.

About George Mason University

George Mason University is Virginia's largest and most diverse public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 39,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility. For more information, visit https://www2.gmu.edu/.

About the College of Health and Human Services

George Mason University's College of Health and Human Services prepares students to become leaders and shape the public's health through academic excellence, research of consequence, community outreach, and interprofessional clinical practice. George Mason is the fastest-growing Research I institution in the country. The College enrolls 1,918 undergraduate and 1,371 graduate students in its nationally-recognized offerings, including: 5 undergraduate degrees, 13 graduate degrees, and 7 certificate programs. The college is transitioning to a college public health in the near future. For more information, visit https://chhs.gmu.edu/.

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