Using Facebook to track STDs

WASHINGTON – Scientists are looking into the possibility of using Facebook to track the risk of sexually transmitted infections.

Researchers are shifting their study of STDs from the risk between sexual partners to the infections’ prevalence among friend groups. Social networks are becoming useful tools in identifying groups with a higher probability of infection, according to Peter Leone, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina’s Center for Infectious Diseases.

“Real-world social networks — in other words, a person’s circle of friends and sexual partners — have already proved to be strong predictors of [sexually transmitted infection] risk,” Leone said. So, sites like Facebook that connect all of those relationships in a virtual setting present a promising study platform for scientists, reports.

Leone found the sexual partners of HIV-positive patients tested positive for HIV 20 percent of the time. Before now, scientists have left it at that, but Leone suggests the strong possibility of the virus extending to the patient’s friends as well.

“People in the same social circle often sleep with the same people, and might engage in similar risk-related behavior. Instead of looking at people within a particular at-risk demographic, this approach allows them to target known clusters of infection,” Leone said.

Leone’s theory is based on a real STD case among a social network in North Carolina. “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.”

Focusing on interactions of patients rather than specific demographics of at risk people is a major change from the traditional scientific approach.

“People think that you have to be directly connected to someone, and I think of it as a population-level effect,” Leone said. “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.”

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