San Diego The late-spring syphilis epidemic at San Diego State is ostensibly over, according to county health officials. Only 3 active cases have been attributed so far to the SDSU "cluster," news of which broke May 3. That's a small percentage of the 209 cases preliminarily diagnosed in the county between the beginning of the year and the end of May. But there's more to the story. Word of the initial infection set off a scramble by the university to notify members of the student body to come in and get tested if they'd had sex without a condom within the previous five months. Trouble was, only a few bothered to show. "We have a pretty good explanation on the [school] web site," wrote Student Health Services interim director Thomas Wilson in a May 4 e-mail, obtained under the California Public Records Act. "Perhaps if another email went out directing them to our web site that would help? We were also thinking about placing large ads in the Daily Aztec next week too. We simply have to get their attention and get in for testing those that have had unprotected sex, be they male or female. We have only had [number redacted] folks in all day today. We expected thousands." In another e-mail Wilson wrote, "Our concern is that once the students leave for the semester they will disburse across the nation and even to foreign countries carrying and potentially spreading this disease."
Karen Calfas, SDSU's director of health promotion, reported in a May 4 e-mail to colleagues that TV stories about the outbreak had been "fairly good, with the possible exception of Channel 10, which may have minimized the seriousness of the message with clips from the show Grey's Anatomy."
Despite all the coverage, though, students were still avoiding the test. "As of noon today we had seen 11 people for testing. After our meeting ended yesterday our director, Tom, said he was concerned about the response to the testing being low. With a campus of 35,000 we have tested (I'm estimating) about 150 people. We are considering some more marketing and changing our policy about eligibility to allow students to come get tested even if they are graduating (and usually not eligible for services here anymore)."
Things were getting so desperate that Calfas suggested putting an ad on Facebook, the college-oriented social networking website: "$5 ad gets 10k hits from SDSU students." But that idea was quickly nixed, according to the documents, because it offended the sensibilities of university officials. "I just got off the phone with Bill and he would not approve the placement of any advertising in Facebook.com," Wilson wrote Calfas on May 8, apparently referring to his boss, SDSU senior associate vice president William Boyd. "He maintains it is not controllable what goes in there, it is a place students go to pick each other up, and at this point it is not a place we should be advertising." Wilson was on vacation; Calfas did not respond to phone messages.