For Gays, Straight Sex Talk -- A Boston Health Agency Tests New Outreach Route Online
In the America Online chatroom, the outreach worker logs on as his alter ego, bostonhotmale, and introduces himself to the pool of strangers. "Interested in chatting with anyone with questions," he types in the room. "Instant message us with questions about STDs, HIV risk and staying healthy." Some users promptly pepper him with questions.
Call it cyber outreach. A small crew of Boston outreach counselors are going on line to get the attention of some of those at high risk of HIV infection: gay and bisexual men.
At Fenway Community Health, five volunteers and a paid worker log on to chatrooms on popular Internet portals such as America Online, Gay.com, and Manhunt.net, to talk to a wide range of people. From the program's launch in July 2001 through this June, the cyber crew counseled 624 men for a total of 307 hours. "The Internet is an environment where people are hooking up, too," said Frank Busconi, program manager at Fenway Community Health. "We are trying to reach people who wouldn't necessarily go to the bars."
The chatroom counselors field questions about HIV, hepatitis, and syphilis that many people would feel uncomfortable asking in person or on the phone. The Internet provides anonymity, health officials say.
The United Foundation for AIDS is a Miami Beach, Fla.-based group that offers counseling, HIV screening and therapy for people with HIV. According to the group's Marc Cohen, the Internet "is where we have a huge captive audience, and we are able to reach hundreds if not thousands of men with critical information. Since last year, Cohen has logged on to America Online under the screen name hivoutreachmiami, and he averages 75-100 online inquiries and 30 e-mails weekly. "This is where the men are, and we need to go to them with our educational efforts, and not wait for someone to only come to us," Cohen said.
Boston counselors also refer users to the center's Web site, www.fenwayhealth.org, to call and schedule an appointment for counseling or HIV testing. "Our aim is to be as thoughtful as we can," Busconi added. "The Internet really lends itself to that because we can have longer conversations with people about issues in their life and their challenges about being safe."