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Medical experts and newspaper staff who set up an online information service about HIV/AIDS and hepatitis say its popularity should encourage the launch of similar services, particularly in developing countries.

The initiative's organisers published an analysis of their work today (4 July) in PLoS Medicine.

In December 2003, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo published information about the two diseases on its website, which is today visited by 700,000 individual users each month. The content included news, interactive graphics, and an email-based 'ask-the-expert' section.

In the first year of operation, the website received 899 questions from anonymous readers — 80 per cent were men — in Spain, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Most questions (83 per cent) concerned HIV/AIDS while 17 per cent were about hepatitis, mainly type C.

The website published medical experts' answers to selected questions along with links to interactive material or websites offering more information.

Almost a third of the questions originated in Latin America and the Caribbean, where about 1.9 million people were living with HIV/AIDS in 2005. In Spain this figure reached 140,000 that year, according to UNAIDS, the UN's agency for HIV/AIDS.

Javier Marco from the Hospital Clínico San Carlos, Spain and his colleagues say the response to their website confirms "a great demand for this type of 'ask-the-expert' Internet service".

Factors key to the service's success include it being anonymous and free, they say. This helped break two main barriers that prevent people from seeking information or treatment: social stigma associated with HIV/AIDS and poverty in developing countries.

Marco told SciDev.Net that the website's success led his colleagues to set up similar services about other health issues such as smoking and heart disease.

They say that making information on HIV/AIDS and hepatitis accessible through a news media outlet, "offers a unique opportunity for health education and is an excellent tool for identifying patient needs and the information demands of the general public".

Link to full paper in PLoS Medicine

Reference: PLoS Medicine 3, e256 (2006)