New vending machines offering free sexual health testing kits have been launched in four venues across Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire by Unity Sexual Health, the sexual health service led by University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust.
The vending machines aim to provide an easy, free, fast and confidential way to test for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. The service will be evaluated by researchers from the National Institute for Health and Care Research Applied Research Collaboration West (NIHR ARC West) and the Health Protection Research Unit in Behavioural Science and Evaluation (HPRU) at the University of Bristol.
Bristol is hosting two machines with North Somerset and South Gloucestershire benefitting from one each (venues: Watershed and Hamilton House in Bristol, The Sovereign in Weston-super-Mare and Willow Brook Shopping Centre in Bradley Stoke). The machines are placed in publicly accessible spaces and will mean more people can get easily tested.
Two types of test kits are available from the vending machines. One is for chlamydia, gonorrhoea, HIV and syphilis. The other is an HIV mouth swab testing kit made available for free by Unity Sexual Health Clinic for the first time.
A person using the first test kit will be able to send their sample to a lab for free and get their results by text message in 1-3 weeks. Someone using the HIV testing kit will have to swab the inside of their cheek with a mouth swab to get a result in just 20 minutes.
Both tests can be done at home. To get a test from a vending machine, a person will have to answer six quick questions and enter the code sent to their mobile phone into the vending machine.
Making more testing available and easier to access is particularly important for groups who find it difficult to access sexual health clinics. Sexual health kits could help overcome some of the barriers to testing such as stigma, convenience, accessibility and privacy.
Increasing sexual health testing should help reduce the number of people getting infected. Unity Sexual Health worked with local African and Caribbean heritage communities, young people and men-who-have-sex-with-men to ensure the service meets the needs of those who might benefit from it or could otherwise find it difficult to access sexual health testing.
Increased access to testing is a priority in Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire which have a higher rate of late HIV diagnosis than the national average. Chlamydia is also detected less often in Bristol than in the rest of the UK and the region has higher numbers of people being diagnosed with syphilis.
This project is part of the Bristol Fast-Track Cities initiative. Bristol is one of over 200 cities involved in this international project aimed at ending new cases of HIV, reducing stigma and discrimination and improving the quality of life of people living with HIV by 2030.
Sarah Stockwell, lead clinician from Unity Sexual Health, said: “We hope that placing these vending machines in public spaces around Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire will help people access tests. We’re particularly excited to introduce easy, blood-free mouth swab HIV tests for the first time.
“We hope that this project will go some way to reducing the number of ongoing infections, as people with positive test results will be offered treatment by our service or other NHS services.
“Helping communities that find it difficult to access services through traditional channels such as sexual health clinics is a particularly important goal for us.”
Jo Kesten, ARC West vending machine evaluation lead, said: “We worked closely with members of the public and project partners including local authorities in Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire to agree locations for the vending machines and create a campaign to promote them.
“We will evaluate the acceptability of the service and share this information to improve the service.”
Councillor Franklin Owusu-Antwi, Cabinet Member for Public Health & Equality of Opportunity at South Gloucestershire Council, said: “We believe that having one of these machines in South Gloucestershire will help us increase testing in our region, by making the process as simple as possible.
“Testing is vital to help identify those with treatable conditions so that they can be helped, which is why increasing testing in South Gloucestershire is a priority for us.
“The introduction of a machine at the Willow Brook Shopping Centre in Bradley Stoke will allow more people to get access to tests, particularly groups who find it difficult to access sexual health clinics.”
Councillor Ellie King, Cabinet Member for Public Health and Communities at Bristol City Council, said: “This is an exciting initiative which will make it easier for people across Bristol to access sexual health tests.
“Having two vending machines, one inside Watershed, Harbourside and one at Hamilton House, Stokes Croft means that STI testing is no longer bound to sexual health clinics or GP practices. People will be able access free tests and do them at home.
“I hope that by having these new vending machines in prime locations in Bristol, it will help reduce the stigma of getting checked for STIs and change the way many people think and talk about sexual health testing.”
Councillor Mike Bell, Deputy Leader of North Somerset Council and Executive member with responsibility for health, said: “I’m really pleased that one of these new vending machines will be in The Sovereign in Weston, making it easier for people to get free sexual health testing.
“I hope it will help us continue to reduce health inequalities across North Somerset by reaching people who might find it difficult to access sexual health testing and take away some of the stigma that is wrongly attached to STI testing.”