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Using Cyberspace to Address Infectious Syphilis in Rhode Island

Posted By Thomas E. Bertrand, Friday, February 05, 2016
Updated: Thursday, February 04, 2016

Mirroring national trends, Rhode Island has observed an upswing in infectious syphilis cases in recent years among gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (GBMSM). In 2005 there were just 14 cases of infectious syphilis among GBMSM in Rhode Island. This number increased to 80 cases in 2014, a 417% increase. Many of these cases are individuals who use cell phone apps and online websites to meet their partners. With the goal of reaching these individuals “where they are at,” the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) embarked on an internet-based campaign to promote syphilis prevention and testing, with some encouraging results.

 

The first step of the campaign was to create a webpage entitled “Sexual Health Information for Gay Men” (www.health.ri.gov/sex/for/gaymen/) on the RIDOH website. This page provides simple health recommendations for syphilis prevention and testing, as well as links to other helpful sites that provide GBMSM-specific local information, such as finding a gay-friendly doctor using www.men2menri.org.

 
A campaign was developed with input from local GBMSM community groups and patients at STD clinics, who recommended that the advertisement be simple, eye-catching, and non-judgmental. Using successful examples from Denver Public Health, an ad was adapted and used as part of a six-week “run” on eight popular websites and cell phone apps (e.g., Manhunt, GRINDR, Scruff) that GBMSM use to meet partners.


Upon launch of the campaign, the RIDOH “Sexual Health Information for Gay Men” webpage jumped into the top ten most-viewed pages on the RIDOH website and stayed there for the duration of the campaign, with an average of 206 visitors per day. Approximately 92% of the hits to the webpage were attributed to mobile phone usage. During this time, visits to the www.men2men.ri.og website experienced a 125% rise, and the number of patients visiting The Miriam Hospital STD clinic that named the RIDOH website as a referral source increased substantially. Based on local GBSM population estimates, it is projected that 20% to 25% of GBMSM in Rhode Island saw the campaign ad and clicked through to the RIDOH website.
 
This project demonstrated that an online public health campaign targeting GMSM may be effective in directing a significant proportion of the MSM community to a health department website and subsequently prompting them to access STD/HIV clinical services and additional web-based sexual health information.
Thomas E. Bertrand, MPH, MA is chief of the Center for HIV, Hepatitis, STD, and TB at the Rhode Island Department of Health in Providence, Rhode Island. To learn more about CSTE activities in STD epidemiology, explore the STD Subcommittee and other Infectious Disease subcommittees.

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