Using Facebook to Help Trace and Control the Spread of an Outbreak of Syphilis

January 21, 2014

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Since the late 1990s new cases of HIV and syphilis have been increasing in men who have sex with men (MSM) in Canada, Australia, Western Europe and the U.S. Syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can injure tissues, resulting in inflammation and sores (sometimes painless) on or inside delicate ano-genital tissues, the mouth and throat. These sores can serve as entry points for HIV and other STIs, helping these infections to spread during sexual contact. If left untreated, the germs that cause syphilis -- called treponemes -- can spread to the brain, heart and other vital organs and nerves, causing damage.

Public health authorities in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, have been searching for ways to help augment traditional tools to identify people who may have been sexually exposed to someone with syphilis so that they can be offered counselling and screening for STIs and, when necessary, treatment. In this CATIE News bulletin, we report on the use of social media by public health authorities in that city to help trace, map and identify people connected to an outbreak of syphilis.

The Rise of the Internet

Research has found that sexually active people, particularly MSM, are using the Internet to find sexual partners. The Internet offers several tools such as websites, advertisements, forums and smart phone applications (or "apps") to facilitate the meeting of sexual partners.


Tracing a Network

Milwaukee public health officials recently published a report of their use of Facebook in the journal Public Health Reports. In it they explain the term "partner notification" (a key aspect of tracing and finding people who may be part of an outbreak) in this way:

"The process of identifying the partners, suspects and associates of people diagnosed with [STIs] to notify them of their exposure to disease and to convince them to seek evaluation and treatment."

Furthermore, they stated that "current methods of partner notification in the U.S. reach only about 14% [of the sexual partners of MSM]." The Milwaukee public health officials suggested that the reasons for this are as follows:

  • anonymous partners
  • insufficient location information
  • limited rapport between interviewer and interviewee

Social Media

Faced with the rise of the Internet, public health officials around the world have experimented with new ways of reaching people via Internet and smart phone technologies that involve social interaction and updating electronic information. The Milwaukee public health officials explained that social media tools include the following:

  • downloadable products (buttons or badges)
  • images, videos and news feeds (RSS, podcasts and widgets)
  • e-cards
  • blogs
  • messages sent via Twitter (tweets)
  • social networking sites (including Facebook)

Although sexual health researchers have used Facebook and the popular smart phone app Grindr (used by some MSM to meet other MSM) to conduct surveys, provide safer-sex information and encourage HIV testing, very few, if any of these studies, have published a detailed account of how they used Facebook to help identify people who may be connected to an outbreak of syphilis.

Public health workers in Milwaukee were frustrated by the inability of traditional methods -- phone calls, field visits, mailing letters -- to help them find people who may have been sexually exposed to people with syphilis. In interviewing the young men diagnosed with syphilis as part of managing that outbreak, the workers found out that some of these men had used social networking sites rather than general email for communication. Some of them disclosed the names of sex partners and public health officials proceeded to contact the sex partners via Facebook in addition to using traditional public health tools.

According to the Milwaukee team of public health officials, "A few of the young MSM in this cluster were unusually cooperative in naming partners, especially compared to older cases and contacts in numerous previous investigations."

To enable contact, public health staff members established an account and profile on Facebook using a fake male name. According to the Milwaukee public health team, the profile established included a nickname and "links that emphasized general health promotion, not specifically related to [STIs] or the MSM community." Also, they said that the Facebook "account settings eliminated the account from being detected by Internet search engines."

Public health staff who used the Facebook account private-messaged selected members of their cases' sexual and friendship networks "to call about an important issue regarding their health."

When Facebook privacy settings were set by clients to block messages, public health staff "friended" designated or suspected members of their cases' sexual and friendship networks. To protect the privacy of their cases, public health staff "friended" one client at a time as well as taking other steps.

Inside the Sexual Network -- Syphilis

As part of their effort to map the spread of syphilis, public health workers drew up a list of 55 possible sexual contacts of people who had already been diagnosed with syphilis.

The Public Health Department was able to investigate 37 of the 55 people with the following results:

  • 17 people tested positive for syphilis
  • 10 of these 17 men were co-infected with HIV
  • 2 of the 17 men were co-infected with Chlamydia

Another 17 men tested negative for syphilis.

Public health officials were unable to investigate the remaining members of the cluster for the following reasons:

  • unable to locate them
  • they refused to be tested
  • they lived in a place outside the jurisdiction of the health department
  • there was unverifiable or false information provided by the cases
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This article was provided by Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange. It is a part of the publication CATIE News. Visit CATIE's Web site to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
See Also
Syphilis -- a Dreadful Disease on the Move
Basic Questions and Answers About Syphilis and Men Who Have Sex With Men (MSM)

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