For those who bemoan the intrusiveness of social media into every nook and cranny of our modern lives, take cover: Facebook may one day develop an app that lets you know not just who among your checkered roster of sexual partners may be secreting an STI from boxspring to boxspring, but who in your social circle may be infected as well.
Salon's Tracy Clark-Flory writes about a group of researchers hoping to harness the power of social networks such as Facebook in the effort to preven the spread of STIs . Among them is Peter Leone, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina's Center for Infectious Diseases who believes that sites with such a wide social range like Facebook can magnify the already demonstrated power of real-world social networks in predicting STI infection and preventing transmission. Leone found, for instance, that 20 percent of the partners of patients recently diagnosed with HIV tested positive themselves, and extended the increased risk of infection among sexual partners to their immediate circles of friends, reasoning that people in the same social circles may sleep with the same people and engage in similar risk-related behavior (sort of like what happens in Trainspotting, which is on cable right now if anyone wants have a good freak out). He offered a syphilis outbreak in North Carolina as an example of the social boundaries of such an STI radius, saying, "When we looked at the networks we could connect many of the cases to sexual encounters, and when we asked who they hung out with, who they knew, we could connect 80 percent of the cases."
Leone and his team ask patients recently diagnosed with HIV to provide a list of close friends and partners who they think might be most at risk, and then go about the sobering business of contacting each of these apparently guileless individuals with news that, hey, btw, they might want to get some bloodwork done because their friend just tested positive for a life-altering ailment. This sort of phone tree, though, is more practical in a state like North Carolina, where some form of partner notification is required by law. Nevertheless, this sort of approach to tracking the spread of STIs is novel in that it doesn't focus on one particular demographic or limit itself to the spread of STIs only among sexual partners, which is important in trying to untangle the idea that direct connections to a known STI carrier are the only risks for infection. He says,
People think that you have to be directly connected to someone, and I think of it as a population-level effect," he says. "It would be no different from someone who goes to a picnic and gets food poisoning. We're concerned about everyone that was at that picnic.
Still, worries abound over using a platform such as Facebook to disseminate such intimate information, since, even with privacy controls, there's no guarantee that news of one's STI won't be broadcast beyond an immediate social circle. A hypothetical STI app could look something like the app Professor of Medical Genetics James Fowler developed to alert users that they might soon catch the flu based on certain keywords in their newsfeeds, though the difference, says Fowler "is there's much less stigma to finding out which one of your friends has the flu." Moreover, if you believe the ever-trustworthy reportage of the scribes at the Daily Mail, social media sites may actually aid in the transmission of STIs among young people who are more likely "let their guard down" when seeking out a sexual partner via the internet, a medium that in some ways can be like the Wild West of sexual liaisons.
For those like Leone, however, social media could go a long way to helping destigmatize STI infection, a step many see as crucial to allowing people to more frankly discuss their sexual health. With greater, more honest dialogue, the hope, at least, is that Facebook and its solipsistic ilk could be the key to helping people stay informed about the real, physiological health risks (and not merely the socially constructed alienation or embarrassment that can follow in the wake of an STI diagnosis) of sexual activity.
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