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San Francisco to Use Web Site in Effort to Promote Syphilis Testing, Treatment

June 21, 2003|Errin Haines | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco health officials are hoping the Internet -- a catalyst in the spread of syphilis -- will encourage at-risk citizens to get tested and treated for the disease.

This week, the San Francisco Department of Public Health -- in partnership with Internet Sexuality Information Services and Quest Diagnostics -- launched a Web site ( where visitors can make appointments for a free blood test at a nearby lab. Using an identification number, participants receive results online and those who test positive are instructed on ways to get treatment.

"We wanted to create something specific for the population that was meeting partners on the Internet, that appealed to them and fit in with their Internet savvy," said Jeffrey Klausner, a health department official in charge of prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.

The Web site also has links to information on symptoms and prevention of syphilis and other STDs.

According to Klausner, San Francisco County's syphilis-infected population has increased more than 1,000% in just four years.

In 1998, the county had 41 cases of syphilis -- the lowest number since 1955, when regular statistics on the disease were first recorded. Last year, there were 494 cases, and trends suggest the number could be as high as 750 by the end of 2003, Klausner said.

Surveys by the health department indicate that as many as 40% of the people recently diagnosed with syphilis cases in San Francisco met their sex partners online, Klausner said.

Though the test is confidential, it is not anonymous. Because syphilis is a reportable disease in California, the health department will use the site to track people who test positive and follow up with phone calls, informing them about treatment options and urging them to tell their sexual partners, officials said.

"This is an easy and convenient way for people to get tested that reduces the shame and embarrassment," said Deb Levine, director of the nonprofit Internet Sexuality Information Services. "If you're trying to bring people in, you don't want them going to a public clinic, where they can potentially bump into someone they know, or going to their private physician and saying, 'I need to get checked for an STD.' "

The diagnosis of syphilis is considered less devastating then HIV and can be handled differently at first, according to the health department. In contrast, people who test positive for HIV are told about it during face-to-face 45-minute counseling sessions.

The Web site is part of a multi-pronged approach by San Francisco to get the word out about the disease. Health officials are also handing out condoms and educational materials and doing street and online outreach.

Officials timed the debut of the Web site for the eve of Gay Pride Weekend, scheduled for the end of June. "In San Francisco, Pride is the time when many people come from all over the country to celebrate their sexuality. It's certainly possible that people may be engaging in risky sexual activity," Klausner said.

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