- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 26, 2000

The Internet may be becoming like the San Francisco bathhouses of the 1980s a venue for strangers to meet for sexual purposes, a medical journal says in an editorial today.

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) editorial is tied to two studies that suggest that people who have sexual intercourse with people they meet through the Internet may be at greater risk for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

The first study found that roughly 10 percent of 856 clients of a Denver HIV clinic had sexual relations with someone they had met on the Internet. Most of the clients sought HIV testing after their liaisons.

The second study showed that syphilis was transmitted among a group of homosexual San Francisco men who met in the same Internet chat room.

These studies suggest that the Internet is a newly emerging risk environment for STDs a "2000 update" of the San Francisco bathhouses, said a JAMA editorial.

Public health officials addressed the 1980s bathhouse crisis by closing them, but that tactic is "not even a consideration" with the Internet, the editorial said.

Instead, public health officials must learn "how to use the Internet in an ethically defensible way," said Dr. Richard B. Rothenberg, a co-author of the editorial.

"Ethically defensible," he added, means using the Internet to educate high-risk groups and help infected people find those with whom they have had contact, but without undue privacy invasions.

"Clearly, as technology evolves, our social responses to that technology need to keep pace," agreed Dr. Helene Gayle, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention.

The Denver study, conducted by CDC researcher Mary McFarlane, is based on surveys of 856 clients of the Denver Public Health HIV Counseling and Testing Site. Most of the clients are white, male, heterosexual and between the ages of 20 and 40.

Ms. McFarlane and her colleagues found that 135 of the clients sought sexual partners on the Internet, and that 88 of them had sexual contact with someone they had met on line.

The study further found that three-quarters of the 135 on-line seekers were homosexual or bisexual, and that most of the people who had sexual contact with someone they had met on line sought HIV testing within six months.

The study concluded that, among people who seek HIV testing and counseling, Internet sex-seekers "appear to be at greater risk for STDs" than the other clients.

The second study focused on a syphilis outbreak in San Francisco last summer.

Health officials want to eliminate syphilis in this country and watch new infections carefully, said Dr. Jeffrey D. Klausner, an official with the San Francisco Department of Public Health and lead author of the study.

When two men sought help for syphilis last summer, both told health officials they had met their sexual partners in an Internet chat room called "SFM4M."

It was hard to track the men's sexual partners because they knew only their e-mail names, and the Internet service provider would not release information about chat-room visitors without a federal subpoena, Dr. Klausner said.

However, by working with a local marketing firm, health officials were able to get warnings sent to hundreds of people associated with the chat room. This led to the identification of five more men who contracted syphilis from a man they met in the chat room.

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