AOL to Post Public Health Messages About Syphilis, Other STDs in Some Chat RoomsAmerica Online plans to post warnings about syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases in some chat rooms, the Dallas Voice reports. AOL spokesperson Andrew Weinstein said that the education plan is still in the planning phase and gave no specifics as to its content or its proposed start date. However, he did say that the company was working with the CDC and other public health officials to create the public service announcements, which will target both gay and heterosexual chat rooms (Webb, Dallas Voice, 10/12). The announcement comes after allegations surfaced that Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, director of the San Francisco health department's STD division, had sought to close down AOL's gay chat rooms because they had been linked to a syphilis outbreak in the city. 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 Washington Blade reports. This year, another 13 cases of syphilis have been linked to men who used the Internet to arrange meetings, seven from the same AOL chat room.
Public Health Measures
According to an Oct. 3 letter from Roland Foster, a staff member with the House Committee on Government Reform, to Dr. Robert Janssen, head of the CDC's HIV prevention division, Klausner had "urged" state officials in Virginia, where AOL is based, to "use their public health powers" to close the chat rooms. The letter stated, "When the Virginia health department did not take action against AOL, (Klausner) threatened to contact the CDC and ask the agency to intervene and force the closure of AOL's chat rooms." Klausner and Casey Riley, director of the Virginia Health Department's STD division, deny that such a request was ever made. Riley said that Klausner contacted AOL and asked them to "put educational messages on their chat rooms," but did not ask that the chat rooms be closed. When AOL officials were unresponsive, Klausner contacted Virginia officials to ask for their assistance in talking to AOL. That action might have been "interpreted as trying to shut [the chat rooms] down," Riley added. Klausner attributed the story to Michael Petrelis, a San Francisco activist who sent out "dozens" of emails regarding the issue and has said Klausner is determined to "demoniz[e] gay male sex spaces."
Using the Internet for STD Prevention
AOL did contact Klausner about his concerns in a letter dated Oct. 4, saying that the company has used PSAs in the past and has allowed outreach workers from PlanetOut to use AOL accounts to disseminate STD information in chat rooms. The letter offered to allow San Francisco health department workers to do the same thing (Douglas-Brown, Washington Blade, 10/12). Internet outreach is becoming more common, according to Ron Valdiserri, deputy director of the National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention at the CDC. "Without designating specifically how, I think there is strong evidence showing that it is important to use the Internet as a way to reach individuals who may be engaging in high-risk behavior," he said. Although the CDC does not have grants designated for Internet education, it is investigating the option and will hold a meeting with Internet service providers and telecommunications industry experts this fall to look into the issue. The agency will also release a survey of 5,000 Internet users about what kind of prevention methods they think are "comfortable and acceptable." Groups such as Nashville CARES and the National AIDS Education & Services for Minorities already enter chat rooms using screen names such as "AIDS activist" or "AIDS 101" to identify themselves as AIDS educators. The screen names are linked to a profile that includes information about the group for which they work. People can email or send instant messages to the workers for more information (Douglas-Brown, Washington Blade, 10/12). It is unclear what form the AOL PSAs will take, but one idea is a "little cartoon condom" that would appear on the screen anytime someone in a chat room begins to make an arrangement, Klausner said. He added that San Francisco health officials declined the company's offer to participate directly in the chat rooms because of a lack of personnel (Dallas Voice, 10/12).