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Sending a jolting message about AIDS

Published Sep. 16, 2005

You're cruising through a directory of electronic messages collected on your computer.

Most of them are mundane, sent from a distant computer that links hundreds of people across the globe with common interests _ in this case, drums and percussion.

Topics pass by with names like "drumsticks" . . . "cymbal techniques" . . . "mallet types" . . . "aids."

AIDS?

Intrigued, you go to that message and start reading.

At first, all you see is a list of people who have received the e-mail before you _ a tally that's pages long _ sprinkled with messages imploring you not to erase the information and read it to the end.

"Abstinence, my friends, goes a long way," says one comment in the middle. "Think!"

"Tedious as it is, please read it all . . . it's an important issue and point to be proven," says another."God forbid any of us have to learn the hard way."

Finally, you reach the last message. It's a doozy.

"In my human sex class, we learned that if someone has received the HIV disease, and they don't know about it, they could pass it on to people who they don't even know. Could you all pretend that I have HIV, and I gave it to you. Then could you pass it on to your friends? Let's see if the entire e-mail population could get infected by me alone . . .

Thank you

Young Bradley"

Just like that, you're infected.

All it took was reading a message from a friend.

+ + +

What if contracting the AIDS virus were this easy?

That's the question Bradley Kessler asked when he lost his uncle to AIDS last year. Hurt and confused, Kessler wanted to dramatically demonstrate the risks of infection _ by someone you may not even know.

He wanted to express the idea simply and boldly, using a medium many people could understand. He is a 19-year-old freshman nursing student at Syracuse University and avid sampler of online computer communications; he took his case to cyberspace.

Kessler sent the message to seven friends in December using his computer, a telephone line and the Internet.

His message also asked every recipient to keep the "forwards" _ electronic notations that show who last received the message. That way, those who passed his note along would hand off a growing tally of those who had handled the computerized request, a list of the infected, as it were.

After sending off the first messages, he expected big results. But even he was astounded.

"At one point, I was getting, like, 150 messages a day," Kessler said. "My account froze up over winter break because I had so many messages _ I had gotten 10,000 (responses)."

The postings had come from the Netherlands, from Japan, from anywhere and everywhere. He estimated that 90 percent were supportive.

"About 5 percent of the people explain why it's not scientific and another 5 percent think I'm trivializing the issue," he said. "They're just being ignorant. I'm just trying to show you can get the virus from someone who got it from someone you never met. This is all hypothetical."

Although there's no physical contact in his experiment, Kessler said, the parallels between spreading the AIDS virus and spreading his message have some disturbing similarities.

"Most of these people . . . I didn't send it (the e-mail) to them . . . someone who knew them sent it, kinda like real life," he said. "My uncle got infected by some person who got infected by someone else. And some people tell me they won't send it (the message) on, which is great. It stops the chain right there."

Scanning the list of previous recipients, the message's epic journey emerges. Sent from friends at Indiana University, the note passed through employees at Microsoft's Seattle offices, an Internet news summary circulated by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and colleges across the country.

But Ron Fichtner, an official at the National Center for HIV/STD/TB Prevention in Atlanta, makes the obvious point: Opening an e-mail message isn't really anything like contracting the AIDS virus.

"First, it assumes the chance of transmitting it is near 100 percent . . . meaning that anyone who receives an e-mail will probably read it and get the "virus,' "said Fichtner, who got the message himself through the CDC's computer network earlier this year.

"One person can also infect lots of people with a single e-mail act . . . that would be like the worst black plague in Europe," he added. "With the e-mail, an infectee is as likely to infect someone in the next office as someone on the other side of the world. And there's no accounting for prevention, like condoms and not sharing needles. What's the counterpoint in cyberspace?"

His conclusion? Using a method like this to teach people about the dangers of AIDS probably does more harm than good. "It may trivialize it, by making it seem like a pretty damn generic infectious disease," Fichtner said.

"Besides, the idea that HIV is going to sneak up on someone isn't really true," he said. "Our research shows most people at high risk for HIV perceive that risk. Can you imagine, for example, going into a crack house with a bunch of index cards (for a similar demonstration)?"

These arguments are old news for Jenna Murphy, a 19-year-old sophomore at Indiana University _ one of the seven friends Kessler first messaged with his experiment.

Since releasing the e-mail to her friends in December, Murphy said she's received "just as many replies as Brad did. Name a country in the world, and I've gotten an e-mail from them."

Unlike Kessler, who says about 90 percent of his replies have been positive, Murphy says more than half of hers have been negative.

Kessler said he's received some flack from officials at Syracuse University's College of Nursing, once the e-mail began to spread. "They thought it might reflect badly on the school, or something."

An administrator at the College of Nursing didn't want to comment.

Kessler and Murphy acknowledge that the framework of their e-mail adventure probably wasn't controlled enough to be used in a scientific paper or classroom assignment. But for the two students, and many who have passed on their message, the results still carry a powerful meaning.

"This is just to say that this could happen if you don't protect yourself," Kessler said. "I originally sent it to seven of my friends, and now millions have it. I just want to spread the knowledge."