Austin Sex Detectives working to slow spread of STDs

Christine Vanover is one of the so-called "sex detectives" for Austin Public Health. Once a patient is diagnosed with an STD she works to track down all their sex partners and break the bad news. (Photo: Bettie Cross)

Sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise in Austin. The numbers are up for syphilis, gonorrhea and HIV/AIDS. To slow the spread of STDs, Austin Public Health is trying to get more people into treatment.

Once a patient is diagnosed with an STD the focus is on tracking down all their sex partners and breaking the bad news. So-called "sex detectives" follow up on every address and phone number and scour health records and social media. They even knock on doors at home and at work. The sex detectives are on the front-line, not only breaking the bad news but trying to break the STD cycle.

No one wants to get a call from Christine Vanover. If she calls you from work, it's always going to be bad news.

"I need to talk to you about some private and confidential health information," said Christine Vanover as she called a partner of a patient who has tested positive for an STD.

But even though the call might be embarrassing, Vanover knows it could also be life-saving.

"We want you to come in. We want to make sure you're okay. We want to make sure you're getting treated," said Vanover.

Vanover is a sleuth of sorts. For almost two years she's been working as a sex detective for Austin Public Health, the public health department for Austin/Travis County. She tracks down the partners of people who are diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease.

"We do sometimes call ourselves sex detectives, but we prefer to call ourselves disease intervention specialists," said Vanover.

For Vanover, every day is a battle against the clock. She's got 24 hours to make contact with a patient or their partner and 48 hours to do a field visit.

"It's definitely a time crunch," said Vanover. "We're constantly busy."

Time matters because if STDs aren't treated they can lead to infertility, brain damage or potentially even death.

"We want patients to come in and get tested, get treated within seven days," said Vanover.

Syphilis is a good example of why Vanover watches the clock.

"If we catch it early enough you only need to get a couple of shots. If you catch it later on you're in the hospital for two weeks easily," said Vanover. "Patients can experience blindness, deafness, motor function issues. Ultimately it can cause death if it's not treated."

Her job as a disease intervention specialist has never been harder.

"This patient does not have a phone number," said Vanover as she looked through a full binder of open cases.

Her caseload is rising right along with the number of people who are testing positive for syphilis, gonorrhea and HIV/AIDS.

"It does seem like a lot of patients are having a lot of partners and it just gets spread," said the disease intervention specialist.

Lab technicians see evidence of the spike every day. The lab at Austin Public Health will handle blood tests for over 13,000 patients this year. Social media and online dating apps are being blamed for encouraging casual and often anonymous sexual encounters. Patients who test positive are often no help in making sure partners get the care they need.

"They don't even exchange names, phone numbers," said Vanover. "They're not able to give us any kind of contact information. So it just continues to spread and spread."

Vanover gets 24 hours to call, text or email partners. If that doesn't work, the next day she moves from behind the desk to behind the wheel. If she has a lead on where a partner lives or works, the information is entered into her GPS and she drives out to deliver the bad news in person.

"We're looking for a partner for an HIV case. We've called them. We've sent them text messages. They haven't been responsive," said Vanover. "So the next step is to now go to their house and try to locate them and kind of stress the urgency of why we're doing this."

If she finds partners she can test them immediately with a field blood kit she keeps in her car.

"We can actually do the blood draw for HIV and syphilis right then and there," said Vanover.

On this day, Vanover wasn't lucky. She logged a lot of steps and a lot of miles, but moved no closer to slowing the spread of STDs.

"It can be high stress," said Vanover. "We're essentially saving lives.

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