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South Africa's text message campaign to spread AIDS awareness, is already having a positive effect, spurring more people to call in to the national information hotline and seek treatment.  (Source: The PSI BCC Blog)

New eCards from inSPOT.org are giving people a way to warn their sex partners that they might have given them an STD, something medical professionals say is critical to fighting disease. The wild cards can range from flirty to serious, but direct people to useful information.  (Source: inSPOT.org)
The text message you don't want to get; "You might have an STD!"

Medical professionals, faced with an uphill fight against STDs and the social stigma that surrounds them have gone high tech and are taking their fight to the digital realm.  A couple key initiatives have arisen to halt the spread of these diseases and guide people to treatment.

The first is South Africa's new text message campaign to fight AIDS.  In Africa, where AIDS originated and still remains a top killer, many are still relatively uniformed about AIDS and HIV.  The leaders of South Africa, one of Africa's largest nations, aims to change that by sending one million text messages a day for 12 months to phones in Africa to raise AIDS awareness.

The project, named Project Masiluleke, already underwent a wildly successful trial period, which helped increase calls to the national AIDS hotline increase 200 percent.  Currently there are 6 million people in South Africa living with HIV, according to the UN.  Only one in ten gets the treatment they need to slow the disease and potentially prevent it from becoming full-blown AIDS.

HIV activist Zinny Thabethe said in a recent speech, "South Africa is the epicenter of the global HIV epidemic."

The real problem is how to reach citizens, but the new campaign appears to have provided an answer to that.  With over 80 percent of the country's citizens having a cell phone, there are an estimated total of 43 million cell phones in South Africa (95 percent pre-paid).  These phones offer a new high-tech means of distributing important health information, officials are discovering.

Describes Gustav Praekelt, one of the project's organizers, "This is the largest ever use of cell phones for health information.  There is near universal coverage.  And in the absence of other services, the mobile phone has become the central component for people to get access to information."

The message sent reads: "Frequently sick, tired, losing weight and scared that you might be HIV positive? Please call AIDS Helpline 0800012322."

Additional space is sold to advertisers to help finance the drive.

In the U.S. a similar initiative, this time citizen-driven, is taking shape.  InSpot.org, a new website, is becoming the talk of the town for the free eCards it offers to tell people that you might have given them an STD.

While health professionals find the impersonal nature of such messages slightly unsavory, they say it gets the job done by helping inform possible carriers to get tested, a key to avoiding the spread of disease.  Says Jeffrey D. Klausner, director of STD Prevention and Control Services in San Francisco, California's Department of Public Health, "When you weigh the importance of getting people notified, that's ultimately what needs to be done.  By notifying them -- even if it's done anonymously, even distantly, even with an e-card -- the benefits of getting someone diagnosed and treated outweigh the concerns of insensitivity."

The site's creators, Internet Sexuality Information Services, have teamed up with medical professionals in 10 cities to offer free guidance to those receiving the card.  This will help direct them to testing locations and answer their questions.  Explains Deb Levine, executive director of Internet Sexuality Information Services, a nonprofit organization, "It's not like you get a card and it's, 'Oh no, it's a dead end'.  The card leads you to regularly updated information about what you may have been exposed to."

The cards range in nature from flirty like: "You're too hot to be out of action. I got diagnosed with an STD since we played. You might want to get checked too." -- to serious, like -- "Who? What? When? Where? It doesn't matter. I got an STD; you might have it too. Please get checked out."

So far, the nonprofit in charge of the site says the number of complaints and prank messages has been extremely low.  As of October 50,000 eCards had already been sent.

Dr. Matthew Hogben, Chief of Behavioral Interventions at the Center for Disease Control's (CDC) Division of STD Prevention says government sponsored efforts are stretched to the breaking point, so private initiatives like this are critical.  He describes, "There aren't enough trained (government) people to go around.  It's a stretch. There are over 300,000 gonorrhea cases, over a million of chlamydia cases. ... (Government information programs were) useful for 20,000, but you can't expand (them) to millions."





"We can't expect users to use common sense. That would eliminate the need for all sorts of legislation, committees, oversight and lawyers." -- Christopher Jennings
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