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Contact tracing

4-minute read

Key facts

  • Contact tracing informs people who may have been infected with a virus, or could be carriers of a virus, that they need to see a doctor.
  • Identifying contacts may prevent you being reinfected by a contact. It can also identify where your infection came from.
  • Contact tracing protects the community from the spread of certain diseases such as sexually transmitted infections (STIs), viruses such as coronavirus (COVID-19) and other diseases such as meningococcal disease.

What is contact tracing?

Contact tracing is a way of slowing the spread of infections by identifying people who have been in contact with an infected person.

If you’re an infected person, your doctor may ask for the details of any people you’ve been in contact with. They can then be tested and treated to help prevent the spread of the condition. Contacts are sometimes offered counselling, as well.

Contact tracing is commonly used to find the contacts of people with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as HIV and the bacteria that cause tuberculosis and meningococcal disease.

It is currently being used to help identify Australians at risk of coronavirus (COVID-19).

When is contact tracing recommended?

Contact tracing is recommended for people with the following STIs:

It is also recommended for other infectious diseases such as:

Who are your contacts?

The definition of a contact depends on the nature of the disease, and how it is spread.

In the case of STIs, your contacts include anyone you have had any sexual contact with, and regardless of whether the sex was protected or unprotected (if you used a condom, for example).

Your contacts might include:

  • your sexual partners
  • people with whom you shared needles
  • anyone exposed to your blood
  • anyone who came in contact with your blood, saliva, vomit or body fluids
  • people who may have spent a long time with you in a confined space, such as in an office, classroom or plane
  • close relatives or friends who share your household, or have been in your home
  • anyone who has touched you, for example shook your hand
  • people who ate food that you prepared or made food for you

Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns.

Steps in contact tracing

Your doctor or healthcare professional will explain why contacts need to be informed. Often carriers have no symptoms and are unaware that they have a disease.

They will ask you questions about specific contacts, such as the type of contact you had, and over what time period.

You can tell your doctor if you have a preference for how different contacts should be informed.

If you decide to let contacts know personally, you will be given factsheets to give them. The Let Them Know website has examples of simple letters and messages that you can send to your sexual contacts, for example. This service allows you to sign the messages personally or send them anonymously.

You can also ask the doctor or health professional to arrange it. Your doctor or health professional can withhold your name from your contacts, if you wish.

All contacts will be encouraged to visit a doctor or clinic. They are likely to be offered counselling, testing and treatment. For some conditions, such as meningococcal disease, they may be offered vaccinations.

In the case of COVID-19, close contacts of a confirmed case will be asked to self-isolate for 14 days.

The Australian Government has released COVIDSafe - a contract tracing app to help health authorities identify people who may have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19. The app is voluntary and free to use. To learn more, visit covidsafe.gov.au.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: April 2020


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