Cleveland health officials investigating a recent cluster of six male syphilis cases found that all six had met in an online chatroom. The department quickly traced the cases before the outbreak could grow, said Dr. Wendy Johnson, Cleveland's medical director. Cases were discovered through partner notification and during routine medical care.
The Lesbian/Gay Community Center of Greater Cleveland (LGCGC) sent community health advocate Christopher Sweiger to the chatroom to alert people to the cases and encourage members to get tested. Sweiger also invited members to post private messages if they had STD-related questions; many did.
Cleveland had 35 syphilis cases in 2003, down from 1,525 cases 11 years ago. A lot of the credit is due to city health workers who daily knocked on doors looking for people who were potentially infected. Columbus had 221 cases last year -- the highest in Ohio.
When people use the Internet as a matchmaking venue, it can make locating those exposed to an STD difficult or impossible. People's true identities can be masked by e-mail handles, and reaching people electronically with information without compromising confidentiality or sounding like a spam alert is still an unsolved issue.
LGCGC began its Internet-based prevention project about two years ago with a grant from the AIDS Funding Collaborative, which also funds the city's needle exchange. The project signs on to a local chat room a few times each week under the screen name Centerheat, short for the Health Education Action Team. "Most of the time they want to know where they can get tested, what are the symptoms of a particular STD and how it's transmitted," said Sweiger. One benefit of the chatroom project is that these questions can be asked anonymously, he added.