SYPHILIS: Cyberspace ‘Ground Zero’ for Latest Outbreak
An outbreak of syphilis among a cluster of gay men in San Francisco has led health officials to identify cyberspace as "ground zero for infection," the San Francisco Examiner reports. According to Jeffrey Klausner, director of the sexually transmitted disease unit at the San Francisco Health Department, all seven men who have recently contracted the disease say they found their last sexual partners through the AOL chatroom, SFM4M, short for San Francisco Men-For-Men. "Partners range anywhere from seven to 47 (men) who might have dated after meeting in the chat room," Klausner said. Tracking the disease through the Internet poses unique challenges for investigators, who have "no names, faces or phone numbers to find the men who might have been exposed to the STD" (Lelchuk, 8/23). Citing its strict confidentiality rules, AOL has refused to release any membership information about those who sign on to the chat room, who are known only by their online "screen" names. The company did put the health department in touch with PlanetOut, "an online gay and lesbian community," whose staff logged onto the chat room and warned readers about the outbreak. "The challenge for us has been to contact, notify and inform individuals (when) we only have their Internet screen handles," Klausner said (Reuters/Boston Herald, 8/23). Health officials say preventing the spread of syphilis is crucial since the genital sores it causes can facilitate the transmission of HIV. "STD control is HIV prevention," Klausner said. John Sharp, an associate producer for PlanetOut, says the incident has highlighted the potential dangers of the Internet: "AOL is like New York City. You can get lost. There are some dirty streets and some clean streets. And you have to be careful because (you are dealing with) real people" (AP/Contra Costa Times, 8/24).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.