Studies: California syphilis cases linked to Internet
Two studies presented Tuesday at the 2003 National HIV Prevention Conference in Atlanta show that gay men in California recently diagnosed with syphilis used the Internet more than any other venue to meet sex partners, Newsday reports. Researchers studied case data from 1,697 interviews and follow-up contacts with California gay and bisexual men diagnosed with syphilis from January 2001 through June 2003. About 66% of the men were also HIV-positive, the researchers discovered. More than 40% of the respondents said they used Internet chat rooms, personal ads, and advertisements for sex parties to find sex partners, making the Internet even more popular than attending sex clubs and bathhouses or meeting men at gay bars and clubs.
A second study conducted at the University of California, San Francisco, showed that 39% of gay and bisexual men participating in an online survey reported having unprotected anal sex with someone they met online within the previous two months. More than 10% of the HIV-positive survey respondents reported unprotected anal sex with a partner met via the Internet.
The studies prompted some AIDS officials at the Atlanta conference to warn that the rising rates of syphilis infection and unprotected sex reported by gay and bisexual men may foreshadow rising HIV infection rates, particularly among men who use the Internet to find sex partners. They also said the studies clearly indicate that HIV prevention and safer-sex messages should be delivered through the Internet to high-risk populations, such as by having health workers available in chat rooms and on other popular sites to provide safer-sex information and answer HIV- and STD-related questions. Efforts like San Francisco's new Web site designed to educate gay and bisexual men about syphilis risks, found online at www.stdtest.org, also should be encouraged and implemented in other cities, officials said. That Web site provides information about safer sex and STD prevention and also allows viewers to arrange syphilis tests and access test results online.
"There's no one solution," said Terrence Lo, a California Department of Health epidemiologist, on using the Internet to help lower HIV and STD infection rates. "This is still a newly emerging venue. We're trying to figure this out."