BOSTON (Reuters) - When a syphilis outbreak struck gay or
bisexual men earlier this year, the County of Los Angeles
Department of Health Services used Internet chat rooms to
The campaign used anonymous Internet chatroom participants to
target educational messages directly to men at risk, Harlan
Rotblatt reported at the annual conference of the American
Public Health Association.
Researchers in San Francisco addressed a similar outbreak
earlier this year by having "experts" educate individuals in
chatrooms frequented by gay or bisexual men, but according to
Rotblatt, the strength of the Los Angeles approach was in using
people from the targeted community.
"If you come in as the authority, you are often discounted by
the target audience," he told meeting attendees. "The idea was
to see whether we could push this further if the message came
from people who had established credibility as being part of
the community, rather than representing the health department
or so-called experts."
The outbreak came to the attention of the health department in
March, when a cluster of 10 syphilis cases was identified
through an early intervention program for people living with
HIV. By November, a total of 125 cases had been documented.
"This was of particular concern because almost half of the MSM
(men who have sex with men) and transgendered individuals
involved were HIV-positive, and a third or more reported sex in
public sex venues with multiple, anonymous partners," Rotblatt
In an interview with Reuters Health, Rotblatt noted, "We were a
lot more accepted than we had thought. We anticipated problems
that we didn't have.
The idea that the conversation was done organically, scripted
very well, and that the chatters were fairly adept at picking
up the flavor of a room, blending into that and responding in
kind, contributed to the success."
He added, "We were concerned that it would look odd, like
dropping a lead balloon into the conversation, but it wasn't
taken that way."