Chlamydia can cause infertility
High street pharmacies are to offer a screening test for the UK's most common sexually transmitted disease, which if untreated can cause infertility.
The Department of Health is inviting bids to test the feasibility of chlamydia screening in community pharmacies in London and Cornwall.
If successful, it is planned to roll the scheme out nationally.
There were 89,818 diagnosed cases of chlamydia in England, Wales and Northern Ireland - up 9% in a year.
However, it is thought many cases go undiagnosed, as the infection often has no obvious symptoms.
Chlamydia can easily be treated with a course of antibiotics.
But if untreated, it can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy and infertility.
The aim of the plans is to make it easier for young men and women - those most at risk - to get screened.
The successful bidders will provide free chlamydia screening for 16- to 24-year-olds, and they may also offer patients the choice of receiving treatment with antibiotics at their local pharmacy.
Boots has been piloting free chlamydia testing at two of its stores in the Wirral since last April, with plans to extend it to another store in Crewe at the end of the month.
The new pilots will be monitored and evaluated over two years to see how effective pharmacies are in providing an alternative route to chlamydia screening.
The National Chlamydia Screening Programme, operating in 26 parts of England, already offers testing at a number of sites, including colleges, armed forces bases and prisons.
Convenience is key
Public Health Minister Melanie Johnson said: "It's vital that we make it easier for young men and women to get tested for chlamydia.
"By offering this service in convenient locations on the high street, it will make it easier for people to call in for a screening test - helping to speed up the detection and treatment of chlamydia cases."
Ms Johnson said the advantage of using independent sector providers, such as pharmacists, was that they were already in position on the high street to provide NHS quality chlamydia testing.
"This means costs to the taxpayer are kept down and we won't need to draw on staff from other areas of the NHS."
David Pruce, of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (RPSGB), welcomed plans for the pilot scheme.
He said: "Pharmacists are experts in medicines and their use, and already make a significant contribution to improving health and preventing illness."
Jan Barlow, of Brook, the sexual health charity for young people, welcomed the scheme, but said it should be backed up by making sex and relationship education a compulsory part of the national school curriculum.
Peter Baker, of the Men's Health Forum, welcomed the pilot scheme, but warned that relatively few men use pharmacies.
"This matters because undiagnosed and untreated men will continue to infect women.
"If this new initiative is to succeed, we need carefully targeted strategies to encourage many more men to use pharmacies."
Dr William Ford-Young, Royal College of GPs sexual health spokesperson, said: "Pharmacists will require appropriate training and quality monitoring to ensure it works effectively.
"It is also important to remember that GPs and their teams are still the best people to deliver this service, but currently lack the resources to do so."