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Prevention/Epidemiology
New York Times Examines Internet Strategies for Alerting Partners About HIV, STI Exposure

January 22, 2009

The New York Times on Tuesday examined the use of various Web-based tools that allow people to alert their sexual partners about possible exposure to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. According to the Times, research indicates that men who have sex with men who contract STIs often fail to notify their casual sexual partners. Deb Levine, executive director of Internet Sexuality Information Services, which created the partner notification system inSPOT in 2004, said her agency developed the tool in response to an increase in internet use among MSM in San Francisco and a simultaneous increase in syphilis among the same group.

InSPOT allows users to send an e-card that informs a sexual partner about exposure to a particular STI and includes links to public health sites and services. The service is available in New York City, eight additional cities and three states. According to the Times, inSPOT currently is aimed at MSM, but ISIS plans to expand its audience to heterosexuals and start a nationwide site this year. According to Levine, inSPOT seeks to complement the role of public health workers in partner notification but not replace the services they provide. Mary McFarlane, a CDC specialist in STIs, expressed concern about whether services such as inSPOT could be misused to spread false information about STI or HIV exposure. However, she added that "if people are engaging in risk online, we need to engage in public health online and to make it as usable and feasible as possible."

Some public health departments also have created online profiles on social networking sites aimed at MSM. Through these profiles, health outreach workers can counsel MSM about safer sex and provide electronic notification about STI exposure when members request it. According to David Novak, a public health strategist at Online Buddies, some MSM who meet on social networking sites do not exchange e-mail addresses and therefore could not use a service like inSPOT. In addition, because public health workers must confirm that a member has contracted HIV or an STI before alerting sexual partners, there is a lower risk for spreading false information, according to Novak. "I think there's room for both approaches," Novak said. According to Kees Rietmeijer, director of STI control at the Denver Department of Public Health, traditional in-person partner notification services can be costly and time consuming, and it therefore is important to find other ways of communicating. However, Rietmeijer added that it is difficult to judge the effectiveness of Web-based partner notification tools because there is no way to know whether the people notified visit clinics for STI testing and treatment (Tuller, New York Times, 1/20).

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