Return of Positive Test Results to Participants in Sexually Transmitted Infection Prevalence Studies: Research Ethics and Responsibilities

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Background: In prevalence studies of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), investigators often provide syndromic management for symptomatic participants, but may not provide specific treatment for asymptomatic individuals with positive laboratory test results due to the delays between sample collection and availability of results as well as logistical constraints in recontacting study participants. Methods: To characterize the extent of this issue, 80 prevalence studies from the World Health Organization’s Report on global sexually transmitted infection surveillance, 2018, were reviewed. Studies were classified as to whether clinically relevant positive results were returned or if this was not specified. Results: More than half (56%) of the cited studies did not specify if participants were notified of clinically relevant positive STI test results. The percentages were similar for low- and middle-income country populations (57%) and high-income country populations (53%). Conclusions: The absence of documentation of the provision of test results raises the possibility that in some instances, results may not have been communicated, with potential negative effects for participants, their sexual partners, and newborns. From an ethical perspective, clinically relevant results should be returned to study participants and treating clinicians in a timely fashion to ensure appropriate management of identified infections. Study authors should document if they returned test results to study participants and report on numbers lost to follow-up.
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Archival date: 2021-03-30
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