U.S. News

Cleveland Health Officials Launch Online Campaign to Inform People of HIV, STI Risk

April 9, 2009

In an effort to monitor cases of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections such as syphilis, the Cleveland Health Department plans to use social networking sites and e-mail messages to reach people who have come in contact with a person who recently tested positive for an STI, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports. Health officials typically track people who might have been exposed to HIV or syphilis by visiting their homes or popular gathering places, such as bars or bathhouses. Beginning next week, the department will create profiles on two popular networking sites for men who have sex with men and contact people through these sites. In addition, the department eventually plans to create a profile on Facebook.

Messages sent by the department will state that the person has met someone who recently tested positive for an STI. It also will provide a phone number to verify the e-mail's authenticity and receive more information. David Merriman, the project coordinator who leads HIV/AIDS efforts in the department, said, "(Our) experience of late when talking to someone who has tested positive for HIV or another [STI] is this: I can give you three names and one screen name." Between $2,000 and $4,000 will be spent on the project, with most of the money coming from state and federal grants, the Plain Dealer reports. The Ohio Department of Public Health in December 2008 developed Internet partner notification policies with guidelines from the National Coalition of STD Directors -- prompting Cleveland health officials to examine how they could establish a similar program -- according to the Plain Dealer.

In recent years, anonymous e-cards have become available for people to notify partners about getting tested for STIs. Merriman said that Cleveland health officials hope to create a plan to make this service available to residents. David Novak, senior public health strategist at Online Buddies, said contact from a health official is more effective than an anonymous e-card, adding, "We have anecdotal evidence of what makes members more likely to e-mail or call a person." Privacy concerns also have been a priority for health department officials. Gina Austin, a member of the Cuyahoga County HIV Prevention Regional Advisory Group and director of AGAPE, said, "I think it's as private as we can get. We have to be very careful." Merriman said that eventually, officials hope the project will lead to newly diagnosed people voluntarily notifying their partners on the Internet or coming to the health department for assistance. He added, "That has actually occurred in other states. This is what we're working toward" (Townsend, Cleveland Plain Dealer, 4/7).

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