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AP/Yahoo! News Examines Increasing Use of Social Networking Sites to Reach People Exposed to HIV, Other STIs

April 21, 2009

The AP/Yahoo! News on Saturday examined the rising number of public health agencies that are utilizing social networking Web sites to reach people who may have been exposed to HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. Health departments traditionally have used letters and phone calls to set up face-to-face meetings with the partners of people with STIs who visit their clinics, test positive or provide their partner's information to health officials. However, the Internet sometimes allows people to identify their partners only through online names. By accessing popular social networking sites -- such as Manhunt, which is targeted at men who have sex with men -- health officials can use online names to contact people's partners and advise them to seek out STI testing and treatment, the AP/Yahoo! News reports.

Health departments in Massachusetts, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., were among the first to use social networking sites -- typically those catered to MSM -- to reach people who may have been exposed to an STI. Kevin Cranston, director of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health's infectious diseases bureau, said that more than 50% of people contacted by the agency have responded since it started using social networking sites in 2006.

In 2007, the National Coalition of STD Directors, consulting with CDC, created guidelines to assist public health departments in creating profiles for confidential online notification. The cost for utilizing social networking sites is a few thousand dollars for a computer and DSL line dedicated to the program, health officials say. Rachel Kachur, a researcher with CDC's STD prevention division, said that although it is encouraging to see more health departments use online notification, the efforts are not happening fast enough. She said, "The national guidelines help by giving local areas a jumping off point, where they can tweak them to fit their needs," adding, "But the goal is to get everyone doing this."

According to the AP/Yahoo! News, public health groups in three Ohio cities -- Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus -- are the most recent to use online meeting sites to contact people possibly exposed to an STI. David Merriman, project coordinator overseeing HIV/AIDS services for Cleveland, said the city recently started using Manhunt and a similar site, Adam4Adam, to reach people who may have been exposed to syphilis, which is increasing in the city. The "goal is to also be on sites like Facebook where we could reach broader populations, including heterosexual adults and adolescents who wouldn't use sites like Manhunt," he said (Cornwell, AP/Yahoo! News, 4/18).

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