September 27, 2001

HIV Outreach Taken to Net Chat Rooms

JOHNNY DIAZ from the Miami Herald 


Lighted by the blue glow of a portable computer, Marc Cohen is blazing a new trail in AIDS awareness.

He logs on to the Internet, surfs into a busy chat room and uses his screen name -- -- to answer questions about AIDS, hepatitis and other sexually transmitted diseases.

``Awareness Alert,'' he types in bold letters. ``Miami is now second in the nation for syphilis infection. Wilton Manors has had an outbreak, too. STD and HIV screenings can be done free of charge.''

Some of the Web surfers want to know more. Others, peeved by the interruption, pelt him with insults and threats.

``We are not the sex police,'' said Cohen, president of the United Foundation for AIDS, a South Beach-based group that offers counseling, HIV screening and therapy to people with the virus that causes AIDS. ``It is an awareness campaign to embrace and heal the community. It's cyber outreach.''

With the AIDS epidemic in its third decade, Cohen and a cadre of national AIDS-prevention advocates are invading chat rooms to get the attention of those most at risk of HIV infection.

It's an approach that counselors and health officials from San Francisco to South Beach believe is working. Finding new ways to reach the principal at-risk groups defined as young gay and bisexual men, especially blacks -- has been a focus of AIDS awareness conferences.

As chat-room counselors, they answer questions about HIV, hepatitis and syphilis that many would feel uncomfortable asking in person or on the phone. 

``We treat it as an opportunity for in-depth individual education,'' said Joseph Interrante, executive director of Tennessee's Nashville CARES, an AIDS organization with staff members dispensing information in chat rooms. ``The education actually becomes an online counseling session.''

As another instant message chimes on his computer, Cohen adds: ``By going into the chat rooms, you have them there. It's a captive audience. You get them to think twice.''

Increasingly, warnings and AIDS statistics have fallen on the deaf ears of a younger, more reckless generation, health officials say.

This summer, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that among young men who have sex with other men, 4.4 percent -- about 1 in 25 -- get HIV. That's the same infection rate as in the 1980s, before AIDS prevention methods and research took root.

In Florida, blacks accounted for almost six of every 10 new cases of HIV infection in the past four years.

Another trend: syphilis outbreaks in Wilton Manors, South Beach and Liberty City. Health officials say the growing numbers mean that gay and bisexual men are encouraged by news of powerfully effective drug cocktails and longer life spans and are less worried about HIV infection.

``The old models do not work,'' said Jeff Wilkinson of the South Beach AIDS Project, where staff members cruise chat rooms as sobequest 

They answer questions and ask others to share what they learn. ``The more the pebble hits the pond, the more it ripples out.''

Cohen says he spends at least 25 hours a week online as hivoutreachmiami on America Online. His online profile gives information about syphilis, how it is transmitted sexually, symptoms and telephone numbers to call for testing.

He logs on in the afternoon and during peak chatting times, after 7 p.m. until as late as 2 a.m.

On a recent Thursday in an AOL chat room called miamim4m, Cohen's presence prompted questions from some of the other surfers.

``What's up with the syphilis infection?'' someone asked. ``Can I get HIV through oral sex?'' asked another.

``I tested positive for HIV,'' one said. Cohen told that writer he would call him later to provide counseling.

Since Cohen started the online campaign in June, he has seen the number of people who ask for HIV tests grow from a handful to a dozen or more a night. He takes their phone numbers, calls them and explains the process.

He is training two volunteers to help.

``So much that went on in bathhouses and public parks now takes place in chat rooms, where people meet to engage in unsafe sex from the comfort of their living room,'' Cohen said.

``It's opening a tremendous dialogue in this town.''