Chlamydia trachomatis is the world's most common bacterial sexually
transmitted infection (STI), with an estimated 89 million new cases
per year (1). Easily treated but largely asymptomatic, C. trachomatis
infections are a challenge for primary prevention (2). If left untreated,
the long term consequences of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), ectopic
pregnancy, and tubal factor infertility are detrimental (3). In Sweden,
the number of C. trachomatis cases has increased for the fourth year
in a row, and only 23% of chlamydia specimens in Sweden come from men
(4, 5). Despite years of intensive case finding strategies, the prevalence
of C. trachomatis remains high in many countries (6, 7).
Prior attempts to screen a population by means of urine samples obtained
at home have proved feasible (8-10). Participation rates have, however,
been too low to allow continuous screening and an accurate determination
of C. trachomatis prevalence. A large problem in C. trachomatis screening
is the consistently lower testing frequency among males than among females.
As C. trachomatis is a sexually transmitted infection, it is important
to encourage men to participate in chlamydia screening (7, 11). New
strategies are needed to identify and treat those infected, to limit
the spread of the disease, and to reduce complications.
The aim of this study was to increase male interest in C. trachomatis
screening participation by using the internet and a home sampling strategy.
Young men aged 22 years, a group with high incidence and low testing
rate, were screened (5, 12).
The study was conducted during February and March 2002 among all 22
year old men registered as living in Umeå, Sweden. In the population
register, 1074 men who were 22 years of age had permanent addresses
in Umeå. Umeå is a university city in northern Sweden where
students constitute a large proportion of the population. The local
medical ethics committee approved the study.
The men were sent a test package containing a cover letter, a urine
specimen container, and a questionnaire regarding social and sexual
behaviour. The cover letter had a six digit code written on it. The
code was also written on the urine specimen container and on the questionnaire.
The cover letter briefly described the study, gave the address of the
study's chlamydia web site and presented information about C. trachomatis,
including the possibility of being asymptomatically infected. Written
instructions were also provided on how to obtain a first void urine
specimen and how to store the specimen before mailing. They were informed
that only one person was aware of their identity (the central research
figure). The participants could then send in their coded questionnaire
and coded urine specimen container in a prepaid, preaddressed biological
After three weeks, those who had not responded or from whom we had not
received a returned, unopened letter were sent a reminder letter giving
them the opportunity to request a new test package. After another two
weeks, a second reminder was sent out. They were classified as no longer
living at their registered address on the basis of the return of an
unopened letter or an absence confirmed by relatives. One month later
a follow up questionnaire was mailed to all non-respondents. They were
asked why they did not participate in the screening study and their
viewpoints about the project (Table 1).
Upon receipt, the urine specimens were analysed for C. trachomatis DNA
by means of a commercially available polymerase chain reaction (PCR)
test (COBAS AMPLICOR C. trachomatis test, Roche Diagnostics, Basel,
Switzerland) according to the manufacturer's instructions. For each
specimen an internal control was included. A negative result was reported
as negative only if the sample was negative for C. trachomatis and the
internal control was positive. A sample positive for C. trachomatis
was reanalysed and reported as positive if the reanalysis, using the
same PCR test, was also positive.
Obtaining the results
The participants obtained the test results from a web site, which also
provided information about chlamydia and gave relevant internet links
for more information about other STIs. In order to develop an internet
site that was attractive to young people, we engaged teenagers in the
design process (http//www.vanster.nu/test/klamydia). The web site was
hosted by the council of Vasterbotten municipality.
The laboratory test results of each coded urine specimen were fed into
a database as a simple text file. The participants could access this
database by entering their six digit personal code at the chlamydia
web site. If their urine specimen was positive for C. trachomatis a
message appeared on the screen instructing them to contact us for treatment.
If their urine sample was negative for C. trachomatis a message appeared
on the screen telling them that they were not infected with C. trachomatis.
For study participants without access to a computer, a phone number
was provided so that they could call the testing centre (ie the central
research figure) and obtain their results.
When infected persons contacted us, arrangements were made for a visit
to a clinic for treatment, counselling, and partner tracing. Partner
tracing was performed by a specially trained social worker.
Overall population characteristics
The 1074 subjects surveyed were all men with registered addresses in
Umeå, whose twenty second birthday fell during the year in which
the study was performed.
Study response rates
After three postal contacts 39% (396/1016) of the men responded, and
362 urine specimen were obtained for C. trachomatis analysis (Figure
1). Six men contacted us requesting new urine specimen containers. Three
men requested new return envelopes. Four men requested new test packages
after receiving our reminders. Four men actively refused participation
in the study. All 362 urine specimens arrived intact without apparent
damage during transport.
Characteristics of respondents
Of the study group, 62% were students, 76% were living alone, and 50%
were in a steady relationship. The median age of first intercourse was
17.5 years and the median number of lifetime sexual partners was 3.5.
Thirty males responded with only a questionnaire (Figure 1). Sixty seven
percent (20/30) of these men had never had sexual intercourse and the
rest declined to submit urine samples for other reasons, the most common
of which was that their partner had recently been tested for C. trachomatis.
Characteristics of non-respondents
Follow up questionnaires were sent to 640 of the initial non-responding
men. One hundred and ten men (17%) replied to these questionnaires.
The most common reasons for not participating were that they thought
it unnecessary, because they believed that they were not infected (50%)
or because they had a steady relationship with their partner (55%) (Table1).
Sixty nine per cent (76/110) of the men who answered the follow up questionnaire
had two or more reasons for not participating.
Of the 362 urine specimens tested, four were positive for C. trachomatis,
giving a prevalence of 1.1% in the study group.
Obtaining the test results from the Internet
The web site had 1834 hits during the study period. Multiple hits from
the same internet protocol (IP) address during a 30 minute interval,
were considered to originate from a single visitor. The number of visits
was therefore calculated to be 634. Test results were obtained at all
hours of the day.
Of the four infected men, three obtained their test results by typing
their codes into the web site and also contacted us voluntarily for
treatment. The fourth man was contacted since he had not approached
us. It then became evident that he did not understand the language of
the covering letter and therefore did not understand how to obtain the
Twenty three codes not remotely similar to our study's codes were entered
during seven different periods. In other words, one or more persons
attempted to crack our codes seven times.
Three men obtained their test results by telephone, since they did not
have internet access.
In this study we evaluated a new C. trachomatis screening method based
on a home sampling strategy and using the internet as a convenient facility
for the participants to obtain the test results.
The internet proved to be an accessible tool in screening. The results
were easily inserted into the database by the investigators and conveniently
retrieved by the participants. Only three of the men in the study did
not have internet access and had to obtain their test results by telephone.
All of the other men were able to obtain their results from the internet
at any time of the day, and infected men contacted us independently
for treatment. Only one man had to be contacted, because language difficulties
prevented him from understanding the instructions.
The Web site had 634 visits, exceeding the number of urine samples tested.
This could mean that people not participating in the study also visited
the web site. We think that this could indicate an importance and a
value of presenting essential information on the web site.
Strengths and limitations
The strength of our study was that the combination of internet and home
sampling strategy gave a male answer response of 38.5%. To our knowledge,
this is the highest ever participation rate yet published for a C. trachomatis
population based screening using home obtained urine samples. Two recently
published population based screening studies of 21 to 23 year olds,
using postal urine specimens as test material, had a 26.8% and 0.4%
answer rate (9, 10).
Among the respondents we detected four C. trachomatis positive men.
The C. trachomatis prevalence among the 22 year old men in our study
group was thus 1.1%. In this age group and in this area the percentage
of positive C. trachomatis tests during customary care, which involves
visits to healthcare centres, STI clinics, and youth clinics, is usually
around 10% (12). Most men tested during customary care are partners
of an infected person and thus obliged to be tested according to Swedish
law. These males comprise a high risk group with a high percentage of
positive C. trachomatis test results. The low prevalence rate of our
study indicates our strategy reached participants outside the high risk
groups, which we consider to be important for efficient disease control.
Furthermore, the C. trachomatis male prevalence in this study is lower
than those previously detected in population based studies, which range
from 2.5-5.9% (8,9). The low prevalence of C. trachomatis in the survey
could be due to a selection bias, since participants could not be anonymous.
The lower male prevalence could also be due to the fact that treatment
and partner tracing of C. trachomatis infected persons is mandatory
under Swedish law. The partner tracing of the four infected men found
six female partners who were at risk of infection with C. trachomatis.
The limitation of our study was that participation was too low to allow
an accurate estimation of the population chlamydia prevalence. Our analysis
of the non-respondents showed some obvious reasons for not participating:
they had never had sexual intercourse (14.5%) or they or their partner
had recently been tested for C. trachomatis (36.4%). Since it is difficult
to encourage this group to participate in screening, we need to focus
on the men who responded that did not care (25.5%) or that they did
not consider themselves to be at risk (50%). It is also generally more
difficult to involve men than women and we find it vital to include
men for successful C. trachomatis screening. And yet, even in the late
twentieth century, a proposed national screening programme for C. trachomatis
in the United Kingdom suggested that only women should be tested (13).
Restricting male participation in screening to that of traceable contacts
makes successful eradication of chlamydia unlikely (14).
A further limitation of our study was that, under Swedish law, the participants
could not be anonymous.
In countries where C. trachomatis treatment is not mandatory according
to law, participants may be anonymous which could further increase the
participation rate. The cover letter and the internet site for such
a study should also present information in several languages.
Considering the large proportion of men who do not believe themselves
to be at risk, the web site could be further developed to include information
about risk factors and possible symptoms of C. trachomatis infection.
The internet could also be used in C. trachomatis screening as a facility
where testing kits can be ordered anonymously. The 'worried-well', or
the young person who assesses that he is at risk could then have the
opportunity to order a coded sampling kit. The C. trachomatis
test results could then be obtained on the web site. This method could
be used for continuous testing of C. trachomatis and could also allow
young people to learn more about chlamydia and other sexually transmitted
The internet proved to be an accessible tool in C. trachomatis screening.
The internet C. trachomatis screening strategy achieved the highest
male participation rate yet published, and also reached young men outside
the high risk groups. Methods of improvements and future implementations
of the internet as a tool in C. trachomatis screening are suggested.
This study was supported by grants from Folkhälsoinstitutet Sweden
and the Virology Department, Umeå University Hospital, Sweden.