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Your Health -- Internet sex seekers risk disease
CHICAGO (CNN) -- People who look for sex partners online may be at higher risk for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and AIDS, than those who meet each other in a more conventional way, a new study suggests.
Writing in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association, Mary McFarlane, Ph.D., a research psychologist at Atlanta's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noted that "the Internet clearly has had a role in the solicitation of risky sex partners."
McFarlane's study analyzed the behavior of 856 people who sought HIV testing at the Denver Public Health HIV Counseling and Testing Site in Colorado between September 1999 and April 2000.
She found that people who sought Internet sex also were more likely to have other risk factors for getting sexually transmitted disease; for example, they were more likely to have had an STD previously, and they had more partners than people who didn't look for sex online.
A growing phenomenon
McFarlane notes that the study subjects aren't a representative sample of the population.
However, researchers began to examine the impact of Internet sex seeking behavior because more and more public-health advocates were reporting that clients used the technology, the CDC psychologist said Tuesday.
"This is one small study," she added. "We're trying to do a bigger study right now."
A second study of a syphilis outbreak in San Francisco, also reported in this week's AMA journal, reinforced the role of the Internet in sexual risk-taking behavior.
Of course, no one can get a sexually transmitted disease over the Internet. But those who actually have sex with partners met online are at risk.
"The Internet allows people to interact with large numbers of persons with similar social or sexual interests," Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, head of the San Francisco Department of Public Health's sexually transmitted diseases unit, wrote. "Chat rooms ... enable persons who otherwise might not meet each other to initiate contact in cyberspace and meet in person."
Sexually transmitted diseases affect more than 13 million people in the United States every year, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a component of the National Institutes of Health. Annual cost is estimated at more than $10 billion.
"The Internet is becoming more and more a part of people's lives. I mean, now you can wear your connection to the 'Net," said McFarlane. "As it gets bigger, the sex-on-the-'Net phenomenon can only get bigger."
The finding that Internet sex seeking is an added risk factor for sexually transmitted disease shouldn't be surprising, said an editorial accompanying the two JAMA studies. This could be seen as simple common sense, McFarlane added, but even common sense bears repeating, especially when it comes to increased risk for HIV and AIDS.
"We're concerned about America's youth," she said. "They're coming into their sexual maturity in the Internet era, and it's obviously a group we're going to have to think about in terms of prevention messages."
The Internet is "a powerful communications tool," the CDC researcher added. It is therefore "common sense" the public health advocates use that tool as well.
The CDC's current online sex study deals with attitudes and motivations behind Internet sexual adventuring. To participate, link to www.sexquiz.org.
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