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