You've Got Mail ... and an STD
A study shows using an e-postcard to warn past partners is catching on.
Oct. 21, 2008— -- If a card that reads "you're too hot to be out of action -– I got diagnosed with herpes since we played" ends up in your inbox, think twice before marking it spam.
A public health Web site called Inspot.org has put the trend of e-cards, e-mail, and e-vites to a unique purpose: the e-postcard that notifies you that a past sexual partner came down with a sexually transmitted disease or infection.
The sender can choose the STD, and whether to disclose their name, while Inspot.org will automatically send a list of local health resources to the recipient.
"Believe it or not, I thought I'd rather get something telling me than not," said Susan, who lives with herpes and runs the herpes support group HELP in Manchester, Conn.
"But then, the first reaction was, is this for real or is this a sick joke from somebody?" said Susan, who asked that ABCNews.com not use her full name.
Opinions may vary about the e-cards, but the trend is growing, according to a study by the site's creators in the Internet Sexuality Information Services online journal.
Since the site's launch in 2004, more than 30,000 people have sent a total of more than 49,500 e-cards. Inspot.org has been adapted by eight major metropolitan areas, nine states, and two international areas (including Romania) for both homosexual and heterosexual couples.
"It's kind of like the e-vite for party notifications, but this is for STD notifications," said Dr. Jeffrey Klausner of the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
It was Klausner who approached the technology-savvy public health group I.S.I.S. Inc. in the early 2000s to help him develop the site.
"In 1999, I discovered an outbreak of syphilis related to an AOL chatroom," Klausner said. Just a year before, San Francisco had eight cases of syphilis a year. By the end of 2004, Klausner said, the city had 550 reported cases.
After tracing the outbreaks to the chatroom, Klausner and colleagues at I.S.I.S. Inc decided to use the same type of communication that facilitated the hook-ups to help resolve the situation.
"In general, we in the office thought, 'Oh -- it's kind of a way of telling somebody,'" she said. "The next thought would be, 'Would I just delete this or would this drive me crazy because who could this possibly have been from?'
"If somebody doesn't care enough to tell me in person, then it's kind of a slap in the face," she added.
Gail Wyatt, a clinical psychologist, sex therapist and professor in the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California in Los Angeles, couldn't agree more.
"It would be very psychologically damaging to someone who thought they had a relationship with an individual and then they end up with an e-mail like this," said Wyatt. "I think they're sarcastic, I think they're making light of a very serious situation."
Yet, Wyatt understands why people would choose an e-card to tell their partner. She said much of the problem with spreading STDs, and with treating them, revolves around stigma.
"There's no real protocol for how to discuss sex in our society, so usually people don't talk about their STD history," Wyatt said. "They usually assume, and they're right sometimes, that they'll be discriminated against. ... So people usually keep it private until it's discovered."
Despite that stigma, Wyatt thinks the best way to tell a person about an STD is the old fashioned way: in person.