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Could Facebook reveal which of your friends has an STD?

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Can the social network help prevent social diseases?

A University of North Carolina researcher thinks online social networks like Facebook have tremendous potential for halting the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). He envisions an app that could alert you to your risk of catching one based on its prevalence among your friends, according to an article at Salon.com.

After all, your real friends are often your online offline as well. 

“When we looked at the networks, we could connect many of the cases to sexual encounters, and when we asked who they hung out with, who they knew, we could connect 80 percent of the cases,” said Peter Leone, a professor of medicine with the Center for Infectious Diseases at the University of North Carolina, at an international health conference recently.

Your circle of Facebook friends may be the best way to spread information about the risk of infection, in other words -- giving a whole new meaning to the concept of “going viral.”

It’s just a concept for now, but it’s not as remote as you might think: James Fowler, a medical genetics professor with the University of California, San Diego, has already created an app that predicts your risk of catching the flu, capitalizing on status updates from your social network.

The app could warn you, “You have a chance of getting the flu today,” Salon said.

Changing real-world behaviors to slow the spread of sexually transmitted diseases has proven difficult, Fowler said, taking real, deep social contact. If people stat to see their friends talking openly about STDs online -- spreading  information about getting tested, for example -- it may help to normalize behavior and reduce social stigmas.

“There is good evidence that [in terms of sexual behavior] we’re influenced by seeing what our friends are doing,” he said.