Fake test kits for sexually transmitted infections, available to buy online, could be fuelling an increase in diseases such as chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhoea, the medicines regulator is warning.
Nearly 10,000 fake STI and HIV testing kits have been seized in the UK in the last three years, the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) says, prompting it to urge people to take a closer look at what they are buying to be sure that what they are getting is legitimate.
STI and HIV test kits can be delivered to your door and are an option for people to test themselves for diseases at home who don't want to visit a clinic or buy a kit from a pharmacy, either because of a lack of time or embarrassment.
Fake test kits can produce a false negative result - when a test shows negative and the person is actually positive, meaning someone could incorrectly believe they are infection-free and unknowingly spread the disease to others.
The number of cases of gonorrhoea in England went up by 22% in the past year compared to 2016, with syphilis cases increasing by 20%, according to data from Public Health England.
A significant number of kits sold online, many manufactured in China, are fake, the MHRA say.
A quarter of 18-30 year olds have bought medical products including test kits online in the past year, with almost one in 10 admitted to buying products they knew or strongly suspected to be fake, research by the agency found.
Six out of ten people surveyed bought fake tests online to avoid "the embarrassment of buying the kits in a shop or pharmacy".
- How can you tell a fake from the real thing?
The MHRA say the easiest way to tell whether a kit is fake is by the poor instructions that come with it, which are often printed on a home printer.
Legitimate kits will have a CE mark on them, a sign which shows it meets certain safety standards.
Another giveaway is the packaging - fake kits often come in a zip lock bag or even just a sandwich bag.
Legitimate STI kits can be purchased safely online, so if you're too embarrassed to go to the clinic, make sure what you're buying is from a reputable pharmacist and be aware of the signs of a fake.
Graeme Tunbridge from the MHRA says: “Before you buy a self-test kit, think about speaking to a healthcare professional or accessing NHS services that will test you for free. If you do go ahead, we want to encourage the purchase of products that are likely to provide an accurate result.
“Know what you’re buying by purchasing self-test kits from a safe and legitimate provider. Look for the distance selling logo which means that the supplier is registered with the MHRA to sell medicines to the public and has been accredited as a legitimate source. And do make sure that the test is easy to use and has clear instructions."