Contact Tracking and Partner Notification

Contact tracing, contact tracking, or partner notification, is a technique used by governments to try to limit the spread of diseases. When a person is diagnosed with a trackable disease, such as an STD, he or she is asked for the names of any person they might have gotten it from or given it to. For STDs, this is usually any individual whom they've have had sex with since their last negative test. After the list of possible contacts is acquired, public health officials attempt to get in touch with the partner(s) and bring them in for testing and treatment.

Doctor talking to patient about contact tracing
Cultura RM/Zero Creatives / Collection Mix: Subjects / Getty Images

Goals of Partner Notification

The goal of partner notification is to find and treat any person that the initial case may have infected before he can pass the disease onto others. Contact tracking is particularly useful for sexually transmitted diseases since they are so hard to spread. Unlike diseases that are spread by casual contact, they require people to have sex! That makes them much easier to trace, at least in theory.

For curable diseases like chlamydia and gonorrhea, contact tracing has the potential to eliminate those diseases entirely. Unfortunately, in practice, it is not nearly that effective. People are often reluctant to disclose their sexual partners. Even when they do disclose their names reaching them may be difficult. And once notified, some people may refuse testing and treatment. Furthermore, since many STDs remain asymptomatic for years, it is often impossible to get a comprehensive list of possible contacts even when a person is being cooperative.

Partner notification law varies from state to state and disease by disease. Although partner notification is done by public health professionals in most areas, individuals with STDs are usually also urged to speak to their partners themselves. As technology improves, new tools for partner notification are constantly being developed. In recent years, these tools have included not only testing and treatment during outreach in the field but novel uses of the internet such as contacting people using screen names and emails rather than real names and the telephone. Some jurisdictions will also offer presumptive treatment for current sexual partners who are not willing to come in for testing. In these cases, the person who has been diagnosed with the disease will be given medication for their partner, or partners, without them having to come in for an exam. While not ideal, presumptive treatment can be used to reach potential disease carriers who would otherwise be beyond the reach of traditional treatment methods.

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  • Hogben M (2007) " Partner notification for sexually transmitted diseases." Clin Infect Dis. 44 (Suppl 3):S160-74.
  • Lawrence, et al (2002) " STD Screening, Testing, Case Reporting, and Clinical and Partner Notification Practices: A National Survey of US Physicians" AJPH 92(11): 1784-1788.

By Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, MPH, CHES, is a social worker, adjunct lecturer, and expert writer in the field of sexually transmitted diseases.