Research Alert: Study Casts Doubt on "Shock and Kill" Cure Strategy

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

January 21, 2014

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Why Was Facebook Useful?

The public health staff found that using Facebook was particularly helpful in the following ways:

  • It allowed them "to reach partners more quickly than by telephone, thereby shortening the time to testing and treatment."
  • They were able to "contact individuals who change addresses and phone numbers frequently, but who consistently access and maintain their Facebook accounts, sometimes via computers at libraries or schools."
  • They could "identify individuals in person by viewing photos online."
  • It gave them access to "identifying friends and family who could help contact the individual within the cluster."

Inside the Sexual Network -- HIV

The public health team stated that it was able to uncover two new cases of HIV as a result of its syphilis investigation and social network mapping. Furthermore, in mapping the relationships among people within the syphilis cluster, the public health team stated that of one of these newly uncovered cases of HIV was "a key connector between otherwise unconnected parts of the syphilis cluster."


Facial Recognition

The Milwaukee public health team made the following statement about how useful Facebook was for them:

"While attempting to contact an individual named as a partner of another individual in the cluster, a healthcare worker sent several private Facebook messages. However, the individual did not respond to these messages. The healthcare worker viewed this person's picture on his Facebook profile. Months later, the healthcare worker recognized the individual in the hallway of the STD clinic and expedited his testing and presumptive treatment for syphilis."

The Future

Partner notification is nothing new: For decades public health authorities in many countries have been asking for the names, addresses and phone numbers of sexual partners of people with syphilis (and other STIs) so that they can be contacted and offered screening and treatment. What is new in the era of widespread use of the Internet -- where people can post or exchange photos and information of themselves -- is that such information can be accessed by a wide range of people, including public health authorities. Such access is possible because electronic social networks are not as private as some users perceive.

Readers can see the potential for the use of social networking by public health authorities for tracing people who may be connected to each other through sex and for contacting them to offer HIV and STI testing and counselling and swift referral to treatment.

The Milwaukee team also made this statement:

"Because of increasing rates of syphilis and HIV in younger subpopulations that increasingly use social media to locate sexual partners, public health officials might consider whether to incorporate Facebook into partner notification for both infections."

The Milwaukee team's statement and findings may spur public health workers in other parts of the U.S. and in other countries to evaluate the use of social networking technologies as they try to curb the spread of STIs, including HIV. Hopefully, such future evaluations will include ethical review and oversight by people external to the evaluation.


Syphilis -- CATIE fact sheet

What the syph is going on? Responding to syphilis outbreaks in Canada -- Prevention in Focus

Can social media help prevent the spread of HIV? -- CATIE News

Using smartphone apps to learn about sexual behaviour -- CATIE News


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  9. Hunter P, Oyervides O, Grande KM, et al. Facebook-augmented partner notification in a cluster of syphilis cases in Milwaukee. Public Health Reports. 2014 Jan;129 Suppl 1:43-9.
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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

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