This Chat Room Didn't Just Spread the Word

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If only they’d kept it to chat. San Francisco health officials were dismayed to discover that an AOL chat room had become ground zero for something not seen in the City By the Bay since the early '80s: an outbreak of syphilis. Officials have talked to seven gay men who had the disease — all of whose last encounter was with someone they had met in "SFM4M" (San Francisco Men for Men). Jeffrey Klausner, director of the health department's sexually transmitted diseases division, estimates that as many as 47 men may have dated after meeting in SFM4M, which could mean a lot more cases soon. And it’s not easy to get the warning out.

AOL, knowing that giving up the identities of pseudonymous SFM4M visitors would have been PR poison for a sizable chunk of its customers, declined to lift its curtain of privacy for the prying eyes of concerned officials. So Klausner got San Francisco-based PlanetOut, an online service for gays, lesbians and bisexuals, to help him pepper SFM4M with warning messages about avoiding the disease (condoms, monogamy and penicillin?). Syphilis is easily treated if caught early, but if left alone, it causes chancres and lesions and eventually leads to insanity and death – all the while increasing vulnerability to other STDs, most notably AIDS. Now that’s a nasty computer virus.