How a new sexual health startup aims to break the stigma of STIs

Zults co-founders Georgia Di Mattos and Bianca Dunne want to help drive down rates of STIs. (Jude Edginton)
Zults co-founders Georgia Di Mattos and Bianca Dunne want to help drive down rates of STIs. (Jude Edginton)

Rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) have been increasing at an alarming rate across the globe in recent years, leading to warnings from major healthcare leaders. But a new app, dubbed "Facebook for STIs", hopes to make it easier and less embarrassing to share sexual health information with one another.

In its latest Annual Epidemiological Report, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) revealed a "troubling" surge in cases of syphilis, gonorrhoea and chlamydia.

The organisation said that the findings highlighted a "pressing need for heightened awareness of STI transmission, and the need to enhance robust prevention, access to testing, and effective treatment" to address the problem.

Enter Zults, a new sexual health digital platform that is hoping to encourage people to practise better safe sex and to remove the shame and stigma associated with sexual health and testing.

The platform, founded by entrepreneur and former architect Georgia Di Mattos and NHS sonographer Bianca Dunne, helps users share their sexual health information with others in a way that is safe, secure, and free of embarrassment.

Young asian handsome man using smartphone joyfully in promenade
Sharing STI information can feel a bit scary, but Zults wants to change that. (Getty Images)

The Zults app is compatible with major NHS healthcare provider Sexual Health London, which is a discreet sexual health service for Londoners who want to get tested for STIs at home.

Sexual Health London provides self-sampling kits to registered users, who send it back to their laboratory for testing after collecting their sample, which can be a urine or vaginal swab, as well as a finger prick blood sample.

Once the samples have been tested, users receive their results, which they can then take a screenshot and send to others if requested. However, this method can foster a lot of embarrassment and shame, which makes people reluctant to be transparent about their sexual health status, says Di Mattos.

"It’s a very awkward conversation to have," she explains. "But with the app, you don’t have to have that conversation. It answers questions like ‘Have you been tested? How long ago were you tested? Which infections have you had?’.

"It’s using technology to help people press forward with these awkward conversations, so that they can stop avoiding them altogether."

The Zults app consolidates sexual health information in a neat digital card, which can be shared with others via web link, QR code or Bluetooth. (Zults)
The Zults app consolidates sexual health information in a neat digital card, which can be shared with others via web link, QR code or Bluetooth. (Zults)

After getting results back from Sexual Health London’s laboratory, users can upload their results to Zults and share them with others through a web link, QR code, or even Bluetooth. The information is held on a digital card that is both convenient and visually appealing, which Di Mattos hopes will eliminate the need for cold and clinical screenshots.

"When you can only share a screenshot of a medical report, it can feel a bit scary," she says. "There’s no way to share it in a good way. But with Zults, you can share it easily and the other person doesn’t have to have the app in order to see your Zults card, they can access it straight away."

STI cases have been on the rise globally over the last few years. In England, there were 401,800 newly diagnosed STI cases in 2023, a significant increase from 383,789 in the previous year, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

But experts warn that the figures may be much higher as many people carry these infections without knowing about them.

Earlier this year, Sir Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England, told the Women’s and Equalities Committee that rising rates of STIs will not come down unless people stop thinking they won’t be infected.

"These are very common diseases, they spread around very easily, lots of people get them who have incredibly conventional, sexual and romantic lives," he said. "The danger is that people think only bad people and people who are not like their friends get STIs, rather than just to say, ‘Look, this is just a normal thing that happens a lot’."

Dunne adds that there is now a lack of "fear" around getting STIs - or other consequences of unprotected sex, such as pregnancy.

The young couple kissing in the bed
Condom use has declined as more people think they can simply get treatment for STIs. (Getty Images)

"Historically, people have always been afraid of getting pregnant or getting HIV. But they’re manageable now, for instance there is birth control, and HIV is now really well managed and quite preventable.

"So people are just not worried enough, they think that if they get an infection they can just get antibiotics or get it treated. As a result, condom use has gone down."

But this means that the STIs are spreading fast, and are changing. Some diseases, like gonorrhoea, which has risen three-fold in the last year, are becoming resistant to antibiotics.

"This strain of so-called ‘super gonorrhoea’ is resistant to azithromycin, one of two antibiotics used to treat the infection. If we can’t treat gonorrhoea with antibiotics, that’s going to be a chronic illness for people," Dunne says.

She hopes that Zults will help get the message of how important it is to practise safe sex and get tested to more people.

"We want to bring on more providers and get more people using it, just to help drive down that rate of STIs. People need to be engaging with their sexual health and have that conversation.

"We’ve likened it to [the digital banking app] Monzo. While it might be embarrassing to ask someone for the £20 they owe you, you can just ping over a request. It depersonalises that conversation and makes it part of the process.

"People find it most awkward talking about money and sex. So Zults is the same concept and making it easier for people to have that conversation. And hopefully, if it’s used properly, it will reduce the spread of STIs."

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