updated 2/20/2004 1:01:21 PM ET 2004-02-20T18:01:21

Fighting fire with fire, public health officials are using e-mail to try to stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among people who meet through Internet chat rooms and Web sites.

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In a pilot program in Los Angeles County, health officials use e-mail and the Internet to notify the sex partners of people who had been diagnosed with STDS.

San Francisco’s Health Department is believed to be the only other agency to use e-mail in this way, said Dr. Pragna Patel of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which released a case study Thursday on the Los Angeles County project.

Chatrooms help to spread STDs
“Using e-mail has been a helpful and good alternative when you have otherwise anonymous sex partners,” Patel said. “More and more the Internet is serving as a place to meet sex partners and engage in risky behavior.”

Tracking STD cases among people who have met in chat rooms is difficult because people often take part anonymously. Health officials often do not have names, addresses or other information to work with.

In other parts of the country, health officials post prevention messages on Web sites used by gay and bisexual men to meet each other. But e-mail is not used. Instead, health officials use regular mail or contact people in person to tell them that they may have been exposed.

Using 'any means necessary'
“I think when we are in a war to save life then we have to use any means necessary to get the means out,” said Sandra Singleton McDonald, who runs an Atlanta AIDS program and is on the President’s Advisory Committee on HIV and AIDS.

In Los Angeles, the need to curb STDs and promote prevention is crucial: The county recently reported its first increase in new AIDS cases in a decade.

The number of cases rose a half-percent from 1,555 to 1,562 between 2001 and 2002, according to preliminary figures from the county Department of Health Services. The increase was entirely among men, whose cases jumped by 1.6 percent. The number of new cases reported among women declined.

Syphilis a case example
In addition, the county reported that nearly a quarter of 759 gay and bisexual men who had syphilis had used the Internet to meet sex partners between 2001 and 2003.

In the case study, health officials described a man diagnosed with syphilis in 2002 who said he had 134 male sex partners in a six-month period. County officials sent e-mails to 111 of the partners to alert them that they may have been exposed to an STD. A quarter of those people contacted the health department.

In a second case, a 31-year-old man tested positive for syphilis last March and provided the county with 16 e-mail addresses of recent partners. Nearly half of the partners made arrangements with health officials to be tested.

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