HOUSTON VOICE • NOVEMBER 16, 2001
AOL denies plan to post chat room warnings
Internet giant is working with CDC on public service
announcements for 'appropriate areas/ not
necessarily chat rooms, top officials say
by LAURA DOUGLAS-BROWN
Internet giant America Online says
reports of plans to post warnings about sexually transmitted diseases in some chat
rooms are "not wholly accurate," a company official said this week.
AOL has not agreed to post STD information specifically in chat rooms, said
Richard Socarides, a gay vice president of
corporate relations for AOL/Time Warner.
"We are continuing to work with the
[Centers for Disease Control] on public service announcements on the issue of STDs,
and we are continuing to look at what are
appropriate areas on the AOL service and
elsewhere across our publications," said
Socarides, who formerly served as White
House gay liaison under former President
Socarides said possible "appropriate
areas" for STD information on AOL include
the services, health, gay and lesbian, and
As for posting the information in chat
rooms, "I wouldn't say we have ruled it out, but
I wouldn't read anything into that," he said.
Socarides' comments this week are consistent with information he told Houston
Voice for an Oct. 12 article on concerns over
gay chat rooms. AOL did not have plans
then to post messages in the chat rooms per
se, Socarides said.
But in a report published the same day,
the Dallas Voice, a gay newspaper in that
city not affiliated with Houston Voice,
reported that AOL would post information
about STDs in some gay and heterosexual
chat rooms on the service.
The Dallas Voice attributed the information to AOL spokesperson Andrew
Socarides' said this week that the report
was "not wholly accurate," but Dallas Voice
Editor Dennis Vercher said his paper stands
by the story.
Weinstein "was familiar with the issue
from the start and gave those responses
pretty much off the cuff," Vercher said.
Weinstein said Wednesday that he told
the Dallas newspaper that AOL would post
public service announcements, but he didn't specify in what areas.
"I didn't say they were going in the chat
rooms, but I didn't say they weren't. I didn't
say either way," Weinstein told Houston
Concern over STD transmission through
Internet chat rooms became a topic of
debate after Jeffrey Klausner, a top official
with San Francisco's Department of Public
Health, raised concerns about an outbreak
of syphilis among gay men he said has been
traced to the AOL chat room SFM4M.
When the outbreak first occurred in
1999, Klausner said he considered asking
for a court order to force AOL to disclose
names of the chat rooms users so they could
The solution came in a suggestion from
AOL, which put the San Francisco department in touch with PlanetOut, an online ser
vice for gays. AOL allowed PlanetOut Volunteers to visit the chat rooms to provide
information to users.
Klausner has continued to push AOL to
post general warnings about syphilis in the
SFM4M room, as Internet outreach has
become an increasingly popular tool for
safer sex outreach.
HIV organizations in cities including
Atlanta, Nashville, New Orleans and San
Francisco say they are using screen names
such as "HIV Info" to enter chat rooms and
provide education to chat participants.
Some activists, meanwhile, have accused
the educators of privacy violations.
Klausner said Monday that he continues
to encourage AOL to post information in
But "there has been no specific plans told
to me by AOL to do direct notification and
awareness efforts in the chat room,"
Meanwhile, a meeting between the
Centers for Disease Control &: Prevention
and other public health officials about transmission of sexually transmitted diseases
through encounters arranged on the
Internet has been rescheduled, apparently
in the wake of the nation's anthrax scare.
"A new date has not been set for the
meeting, however, it will be rescheduled
when all key state, local and other officials
can attend," said Mary McFarlane, a
research behavioral scientist at CDC's
National Center for HIV, STD & TB
America Online was not part of the
planned meeting, Socarides said, although
AOL is engaged in "active discussions"
with the CDC about appropriate language
for public service announcements.
Reports that America Online plans to post STD
information in chat rooms are not accurate,
according to Richard Socarides, vice president
of corporate relations for AOL/Time Warner.
P.O. Box 29521
New York, NY 10097
People with syphilis more at risk for HIV, health experts say
> Continued from Page 1
In Texas, unlike California and other
areas in the nation, health officials do not
report a link between gay chat rooms and
the increase in cases of syphilis.
Paffel said that at least in Houston, it is
more likely that the STD is spread by men
who have sex with men after meeting in
places other than a chat room, such as bars
"There are some pickup sites on the
Internet that I think have been referenced a
couple of times," Paffel said of information
his office has gathered from gay patients. "I
haven't seen a big relationship with that."
The Houston Department of Health &
Human Services (HDHHS) reported an
increase in new syphilis infections among
gay men early this year. That trend has continued, Paffel said this week.
Reported new infections between May
and October this year totaled 23, compared
to 28 such cases of early syphilis among gay
men the first four months of the year. That
contrasts with 18 such cases reported last
year total between January and October,
according to Paffel.
"In the gay community specifically, it's
been going kind of up and down," Paffel
said. "Right now we're still at a higher level
than we're comfortable with and really need
to be aggressive to get the word out for people to use precautions. It's still there."
Of particular concern to health officials is
the rate of syphilis co-infection with HIV
among gay men. Paffel said people who are
infected with syphilis are at an increased
risk of HIV infection.
"The syphilis chancre sores make the
risk of HIV infection two to five times higher," he noted.
Both diseases can be prevented through
safer sex practices such as condom use,
reducing the number of sexual partners and
eliminating high-risk sexual practices,
health experts said.
Paffel encourages gay men to be mindful
of symptoms of syphilis and to refer their
sexual partners to health care officials if
they discover they are infected.
Health experts in Houston and across
the state are combating the increase in STDs
through traditional methods such as talking
to the media and posting fliers, posters and
other items in high-traffic places such as
bars or book stores.
"We try and get some visibility in
[putting] promotional items out into the
community where folks might congregate,"
Paffel said. "We're also trying to alert the
medical providers that cater to gay men."
He noted that health professionals sometimes need to be reminded that patients
who test positive for HIV do not necessarily
abstain from having sex.
A main ally for the HDHHS in the local
health education campaign is the Montrose
Clinic, which provides free testing for
syphilis, Paffel added.
Syphilis is caused by the bacterium
Treponema Pallidum, and transmission
occurs when the uninfected partner has contact with the infected partner's painless
lesion, which is often located in the genital,
anal or mouth area. The newly infected person will develop lesions about three weeks
later, according to health officials.
The disease is treated with antibiotics.
Left untreated, however, the infection progresses to the secondary phase, in which
one or more areas of the skin break into a
non-itchy rash. Secondary syphilis symptoms also include fever, swollen lymph
glands, headaches, weight loss, muscle
aches and fatigue.
If the case remains untreated, health
experts caution, the patient's symptoms will
disappear but the disease will continue to
[•J Texas Department of
Bureau of HIV and STD Prevention
1100 West 49th St.
Austin, TX 78756