LAWRENCE — As the first former University of Kansas football player to come out as gay, Brad Thorson knows that talking about sex can be awkward and intimidating.
But he also knows the health dangers that can come from not talking about it.
"There's a lot of shame still in getting STIs (sexually transmitted infections)," Thorson said. "We treat things like mono(nucleosis) as sort of a rite of passage in high school ... but we really come down hard on somebody who gets something like chlamydia or gonorrhea."
"The reason it's so prevalent is that the testing rate is too low and we're not treating it," he said.
Thorson, who played at KU from 2008-2010 and now lives in New York City, recently launched a business to regularly ship STI test kits, condoms and lubricants to people's homes — a monthly box subscription service for sexual health. It's called Kalamos Care, the Kansas City Star reported.
The goal is partly to help people get tested regularly without as many embarrassing or invasive trips to the doctor or lab. But it's also to make the regular testing a normal part of life for people who are sexually active, in the hopes that they'll feel more comfortable talking openly with partners and doctors.
"Erasing the shame that may have been instilled in somebody because of early (sex) education or certain community groups they were part of," Thorson said, "because that's a huge barrier in not only combating STIs but also making sure people have a positive and healthy sex life."
Other at-home test kit companies, like myLAB Box, have launched in recent years, but Thorson said those are more for one-time use, aimed at people who have an occasional STI scare. Kalamos is intended for those who want to take a more proactive approach, he said.
Statistics suggest there's a need for much more testing.
Cases of both gonorrhea and syphilis have surged in the Kansas City area in recent years.
Kaiser Health News reported in April that syphilis is spiking statewide in Missouri, with cases quadrupling between 2012 and 2018. Rates are rising particularly fast in rural parts of the state, the nonprofit news site said. Rates are up in Kansas as well, though not as sharply.
Lesha Dennis, an epidemiology specialist who studies STIs for the Kansas City Health Department, said syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia rates all increased nationally last year.
"That was for the first time in a long time," Dennis said. "And it also is happening locally."
Dennis said the syphilis outbreak in particular has been linked to drug use, which tends to increase risky behaviors like having unprotected sex with multiple partners. Such people may be unlikely to purchase home testing kits, she said.
"If you are, in fact, using meth, that's probably going to be low on your list of things to do," Dennis said.
At-home tests can also be expensive, she said. People who can't afford them would be more likely to use the health department, where they can get tested and treated for free.
But in general, Dennis said, at-home testing kits could be a good way to increase access for patients, especially if they live in rural areas or are embarrassed about getting tested in a medical office or lab.
Just the reminder of having the box arrive at their home could be useful too, Dennis said.
"Having that on their mind and just that ounce of prevention to share with other people and maybe help them just keep it in the forefront, I see that as a benefit as well," Dennis said.
Kalamos' testing boxes cost $250 each for people without insurance and $50 for people whose insurance covers them. Thorson said he's hoping to bring down both prices in the future.
Thorson said the idea of Kalamos Care came several years ago when he started taking pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, a pair of medications that prevent HIV.
People on PrEP are required to get tested for HIV every three months. Thorson said it became a hassle, even in a major city.
"My building has a Quest lab on the first floor," Thorson said. "I have the easiest setup and I still find it inconvenient."
Spurred on by his roommates, who Thorson joked "were probably tired of hearing me talk about it," he started raising capital for Kalamos. The name comes from a character in Greek myth who was grief-stricken when the young man he loved drowned. The story inspired a poem by Walt Whitman, who some believe was gay.
Thorson launched Kalamos a few months ago in partnership with a few sexual health clinics.
In addition to HIV, the Kalamos kits can also collect samples to be tested for gonorrhea, chlamydia, hepatitis A and C and syphilis.
Thorson said he's focused his marketing mainly on PrEP patients right now, but would eventually like to expand it to anyone who is sexually active and wants the convenience of at-home testing.
"We're trying to build a network of local clinics that can deal with all the results," Thorson said.
He's launching first in New York and California, but expects it to be available in the Kansas City area soon.
"I would tell you it's imminent but I've learned in the six-and-a-half months of being at this full time that things in the health care industry take far longer than I'd expect," Thorson said.
Along with the test kits and condoms, Thorson said each box from Kalamos will also include materials to help get people talking about sexual health.
That's a key step to stemming the tide of STIs, he said.
"Just because something's awkward doesn't make the problem go away," Thorson said. "In fact, it's probably a contributing factor."