VANCOUVER — It’s a note delivering an intimate message to a romantic partner — but this letter is definitely not sealed with a kiss.
“I’m so sorry,” reads one, while a second states: “Sometimes there are strings attached.”
Others are more direct and unsubtle, including one depicting a screw.
Such missives are now available on electronic postcards, as British Columbia’s provincial health authority aims to help people tell sex partners they may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted infection.
It’s unwanted news, but could help people get treatment sooner and prevent the further spread of disease, said Dr. Mark Gilbert, of the BC Centre for Disease Control.
“We’re thinking about how can we use the Internet and … doing it in a way that gives more control to people so that they can take more control over their own health,” Gilbert said in an interview after the site was launched on Monday.
The free online service at www.bccdc.ca/inspot and www.inspot.org allows individuals to send ecards to up to six people at a time, in English, French or Spanish. Personal messages can be included, or the ecards can be sent anonymously.
Recipients will be presented with information related to specific infections, treatment and a list of local locations of testing clinics.
Gilbert said the new service wasn’t launched in response to any kind of rise in infection rates, but is meant to be used as another tool to combat the thousands of cases of sexually transmitted infections diagnosed in B.C. each year.
Other jurisdictions, including Toronto and Ottawa, have experienced little misuse of the ecards, but users have the option of filing a complaint if someone is found to have been sent a card as a joke.
“Some people have questioned the humour tone to some of the cards,” Gilbert said, noting they were penned after consultation with community groups and feedback from people who have been treated for such infections.
“You can pick the card that suits you best.”
The agency will work with collaborating partners in Toronto and Ottawa, cities that have used the site already for several years, to create a survey that attempts to glean whether or not people who receive the ecards actually get tested.
Gilbert noted the system shouldn’t replace existing methods of notifying partners, such as in-person contact or with the help of a public health nurse.
The concept was originally developed in San Francisco in 2004 by a company called ISIS, or Internet Sexuality Information Services, and conceived to directly combat a rise in syphilis rates amongst gay men.
The company has since marketed the services more broadly across the U.S. and Canada.
“Most people who receive an ecard that says you may have been exposed to an STI will actually reach out, if they’re sexually active they will reach out for services,” said Deb Levine, ISIS executive director.
There’s been no formal evaluation of how well it works, though Levine said she’d welcome the research. A total of 8,741 ecards in total were sent in 2010, and the inspot.org website tallied more than 23,000 unique visitors from January to March, 2011.