STD detective tracks down infected partners to halt disease

SEATTLE -- When it comes to job security, King County's unofficial STD detective will probably never run out of work. For the past 11 years, Michelle Perry has tracked people down to break the bad news.

She tells them it's likely they have a sexually transmitted disease.

"We ask them about their partners and have they notified them, can we help you notify them, can we notify them?" Perry said.

As a disease intervention specialist, Perry tries to break the cycle of infection by getting people tested and treated before the problem spreads. That doesn't mean people are happy to hear from her.

"They've used words I can't use on TV" or in print," Perry said.

Doctors and health clinics are required to report STDs, and in King County that information passes to Perry. She works with each patient to get their list of partners, then calls them up so they get treatment.

Typically that initial circle of partners have their own circles of people they've had sexual relations with, and Perry's list of people to call ripples out.

While most of her work is done over the phone, social media sites like Facebook are also useful to find people and contact them. Perry says younger people respond well to texts, but she keeps the message short, saying simply "call me."

And when all else fails?

"We will go knock on doors," she said.

Above all else, patient privacy is sacred. All calls made are confidential, and Perry uses a soundproof room in an off-limits area of a downtown skyscraper to dial each person she thinks may be infected.

King county doesn't have an STD outbreak at the moment, but there's a steady stream of new cases. Chlamydia infections are the most common problem, with 6,896 new cases in 2012. New reports of gonorrhea reached 1,560 cases last year, syphilis hit 455, and new diagnosis of HIV were at 222.

Health experts say many people who have a sexually transmitted disease may not realize it because sometimes symptoms don't show up right away. However, left untreated, they can create a serious health problem.

Being an STD detective isn't glamorous, but Perry says it's a way to help.

"Occasionally I get a thank you," she said.

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