OBJECTIVES : To determine the unmet need for care and barriers for consulting sexually transmitted infection (STI) services at six primary healthcare (PHC) facilities in rural South Africa.
METHODS : Cross‐sectional study using three community‐based strategies to mobilise adult individuals with STI‐associated symptoms to access care. Participants were mobilised through clinic posters and referral by community healthcare workers (CHWs) and traditional leaders after training. Men with male urethritis syndrome and women with vaginal discharge syndrome were mobilised to visit participating PHC facilities on two designated days when an expert team visited the facility. Questionnaires were completed and HIV rapid tests offered. The minimal unmet need for care of individuals with STI‐associated symptoms was calculated by dividing the number of cases over the adult catchment population of each PHC facility.
RESULTS : We successfully mobilised 177 symptomatic individuals: 134 (76%) women and 43 (24%) men. The estimated minimal unmet need for STI care was 1:364 (95% CI 1:350–1:380) individuals in this region; the rate was higher in village than township facilities, and among women. Mobilisation through clinic posters (57%) and by CHWs (23%) was most successful. Three‐quarters of individuals (132/177) reported symptoms that had been present for >30 days; 49% (87/177) had symptoms >6 months. In addition, we identified 14 individuals with untreated HIV infection amounting to a 7% HIV testing yield. Lack of awareness of symptoms (34%), and disappointment in care due to persistent (23%) or recurrent (15%) symptoms after previous treatment, or disappointment with health services in general during previous visit(s) for any reason (10%) was the most common reasons for not consulting health care.
CONCLUSIONS : We demonstrate a high unmet need for care of individuals with STI‐associated symptoms in rural South Africa that requires urgent attention. A multidisciplinary approach that creates service demand through community awareness and information provision by healthcare workers combined with strengthening the quality of STI services is required to improve reproductive health and prevent complications of untreated STIs in this population.