Objective: This paper reports on a study undertaken in a rural area of South Africa, to develop a non-laboratory tool to screen for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among family planning clients.
Methods: A cross sectional study was performed of 249 consecutive women attending a family planning service between November and December 1994. A questionnaire was administered, and a clinical examination and laboratory tests conducted. Sociodemographic, clinical, and other non-laboratory variables that were significantly associated with laboratory evidence of infection were combined to produce non-hierarchical scoring systems for three "syndromes": gonococcal and/or chlamydial cervical infection, trichomoniasis, and cervical infection and/or trichomoniasis combined. The sensitivity, specificity, and predictive values of the scoring systems as a screening tool were assessed against the gold standard of laboratory tests.
Results: The prevalence of reproductive tract infections among the study participants was as follows: Chlamydia trachomatis 12%, Neisseria gonorrhoeae 3%, Trichomonas vaginalis 18%, and bacterial vaginosis 29%. Although vaginal discharge and other symptoms were frequently reported, symptoms bore no relation to the presence of infection. The following independent associations with gonococcal/chlamydial cervical infection were found: age less than 25 years and cervical mucopus and/or friability. Abnormal discharge on examination, visible inflammatory changes of the cervix (increased redness), no recent travel, and unemployment were associated with trichomoniasis. The combination of trichomonas and/or cervical infection ("STD syndrome") was associated with cervical mucopus/friability, unemployment, lack of financial support, and increased redness of the cervix. Of the three scoring systems developed on the basis of these associations, that of the "STD syndrome" achieved the best performance characteristics as a screening tool, with a sensitivity of 62%, specificity of 74%, and positive predictive value of 48%.
Conclusion: STDs are common in a population of rural, sexually active women attending a family planning service. In resource poor settings, non-laboratory screening tools could play some role in identifying and treating infections in these women, especially since the majority would not otherwise have been reached. However, such screening tools cannot be viewed as the only way to identify STDs and should be considered as part of an overall strategy of STD control that includes, for example, good management of symptomatic individuals and their partners.