Idea #66 for April 25th, 2009: Containing Viruses Online or Social Networking Sites and Public Health

Social networking websites like Facebook have become extremely popular in recent years, and now some public health departments are using them in an effort to stop the spread of disease. In Ohio, public health workers are using social networking sites to track down partners of STD-infected patients. The focus so far has mainly been on dating sites, where members may not be aware that a sexual partner has been diagnosed with an STD.

Notifying people who’ve potentially been exposed to STDs is an important step in controlling outbreaks of those diseases. Sometimes patients know their partners only by first name or by an online moniker, which makes tracking them down difficult. That’s where the social networking sites come in handy.

In Ohio, public health workers find the patients’ partners on these sites and notify them to contact a public health facility for more information. If the patient follows up, an office visit can be scheduled to test for STDs. Aside from notifying potential carriers of STDs, public health departments also use the networking sites for education. Establishing a presence on the sites allows them to provide information and contact details to anyone interested.

To make the process easier, the National Coalition of STD Directors has published guidelines on how best to notify potential STD carriers through social networking sites. It’s great that some health departments are using current technologies to help contain the spread of disease. In Massachusetts, where similar efforts have been taking place since 2006, well over half of the people contacted have responded to notifications. As long as this is done in a way that respects privacy laws, public health departments around the country should use social networking sites to their advantage.

See news stories about social networking sites and public health here and here.

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