AOL Rejects San Francisco Health Department Request to Post Syphilis Warnings in Online Chat Rooms
America Online has said that it will not post "any sort of warnings" or health advisories about the risk of syphilis among gay males in San Francisco in its chat rooms, the Wall Street Journal reports. Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, director of STD prevention for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, had asked the Internet company to post information on safe sex "anywhere ... on the online service," but the company said it "has no plans to post the warnings" (Angwin, Wall Street Journal, 11/15). Health department officials linked eight infected men who used the chat room SFM4M to arrange for sex with a total of 99 men to a 1999 outbreak of the disease. Thirty-four of the 99 men sought testing and "at least six" tested positive for syphilis. Five of the men involved also indicated that they had HIV, "raising concerns" that the chat rooms could also aid in the spread of HIV. The AOL refusal comes a month after the Dallas Voice reported that the company was planning to post syphilis warnings (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 10/18). Klausner said, "All I'm asking AOL to do is an education and awareness campaign. I'm not asking them to close the chat room, or to restrict access to it, or to give personal information about the users. To me, I see it as similar to getting tobacco companies to label their products." Andrew Weinstein, an AOL spokesperson, said, "We appreciate [Klausner's] input and we encourage him to continue bringing any concerns he has to our attention." Weinstein added that the company has been working with the CDC to develop a series of "sexual health advisories," but was unable to offer a time line for the release of the public service announcements.
Other groups have asked AOL to post warnings about syphilis, but the company has declined those requests as well. The National Coalition of STD Directors made a request in October for the company to post PSAs in chat rooms "where AOL members meet sexual partners," but the company responded with information on its joint campaign with the CDC, which is still in development. Instead, AOL has offered Klausner free access to chat rooms on the service so he can "post the health-advisory messages himself." But Klausner responded that he does not have a large enough staff to do so. The Journal reports that two gay Web sites, Gay.com and PlanetOut.com, often run banner ads on their sites promoting safe sex and send volunteers to their chat rooms to discuss health issues and sexually transmitted diseases. PlanetOut recently held an online forum with Klausner focusing on syphilis. Tom Coates, director of the AIDS Research Institute at the University of California-San Francisco, said studies show that people who use chat rooms to "find sexual partners" have an increased risk of contracting an STD. He added that the "culture of chat rooms" is part of the problem, saying, "One of the norms that has developed has been a norm of unsafe (sexual) activity. Anything we can do to bring that norm around is helpful" (Wall Street Journal, 11/15).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.