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Tapping Into AIDS Info : Students Can Ask Questions, Get Answers by Computer

October 29, 1987|ROXANA KOPETMAN | Times Staff Writer

When students at California State University, Long Beach, sign on to campus computers now, a line automatically pops up on display screens asking if they want information about AIDS.

Students--along with faculty and staff members--who respond that they do want information about the deadly disease can anonymously tap into an updated data base, thanks to a program recently developed by a psychology professor.

The computer program, which made its debut last month, is believed to be the first of its kind at a California state university.

"We were trying to come up with a way students could ask for information anytime in a non-threatening environment," explained its creator, Prof. Fen Rhodes.

AIDS INFO ON-LINE has been "a smashing success," with 20 to 25 people tapping into the program each day, said Rhodes, the school's AIDS Education Project director.

The program features general information about acquired immune deficiency syndrome, national and local statistics which are updated every week, references for school papers, a "Test Your AIDS Knowledge" quiz, a guide to community services and volunteer jobs, and a question-and-answer section.

In the question-and-answer portion, a person can anonymously leave a question, return 72 hours later, sign on and find the answer, Rhodes said.

Rhodes and psychology graduate student Richard Wolitski, who came up with the idea of forming a computer program, check with the Long Beach Health Department, the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and other sources for the answers to students' questions.

Those signing on to the system are asking a range of questions, from whether it is possible to get AIDS from another's tears to the life expectancy of someone with AIDS.

"There were some people who said no one will look at it because it's a computer. But that's not true. We made it friendly enough," said Rhodes, whose hobby is computers. "Computers are engaging to people. They like to sit there and stare at them."

Because the program tracks how many people sign on, which portions they tap into and how long they use each section, Rhodes can determine which are the most popular portions of the program. So far, he said, the question-and-answer section has been the most popular.

"There are students who are getting information who would not otherwise seek out information, I am convinced," Rhodes said.

This week, Rhodes is sending copies of the program to other universities. Eventually, he said, he would like to see it also used in high schools.

Spokesmen for the California State University and Colleges system and the University of California system said they knew of no other campus with such a computer program.

Stanford University has a computer program with 85 information categories, including AIDS, but it is not updated as often as the Long Beach system and does not automatically ask all those signing on if they want AIDS information, according to Alejandro Martinez, associate director of Stanford's Cowell Health Center. "We will be developing it so it becomes more accessible," Martinez said.

At Cal State Long Beach, students and others have access to approximately 500 computer terminals that are scattered throughout the campus. Some are available to aid students with course work, while others are in administrative offices and places like the library. The AIDS information can also be accessed through home computers, Rhodes said. "We have some students who call in the middle of the night," he said.

The school's AIDS Education Project is working under several federal and state grants, Rhodes said. Under a $220,000 grant from the Long Beach Health Department and financed by the Center for Disease Control, the university is developing model AIDS education programs which could be used across the country.

"We're fortunate on campus that we have a large-funded program that can supplement information and be there for the students," Rhodes said.

Cal State Long Beach also is among the first to have a student organization promoting education about AIDS, according to Wolitski, the campus coordinator for the AIDS Education Project. SAFE, or Students for AIDS Facts and Education, began sponsoring information tables, a speakers' bureau and other activities last spring, Wolitski said.

In a related issue, Cal State Long Beach students will be able to receive free AIDS testing beginning next week. The City Council Tuesday agreed to contribute $15,000 for the testing, which will be done anonymously at the campus Student Health Center through June 30, 1988.

Students will receive the blood tests, along with counseling, in a "pure anonymous process to make it as easy for them as possible," said Student Health Services Director James Morse.

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