Background and objectives: Partner notification has been the cornerstone for the prevention and control of syphilis in the United States. This technique may not make full use of contextual data that an ethnographic and social network approach can offer.
Goals of the study: The occasion of a syphilis outbreak among young people was used to investigate the applicability of a social network approach and to test the validity of several traditional approaches to syphilis epidemiology.
Study design: An outbreak of syphilis was investigated by interviewing both infected and noninfected people, by directing resources based on network association, by creating and evaluating network diagrams as an aid to the epidemiologic process, and by including ethnographic observations as part of outbreak management.
Results: Diagrammatic display of network growth provided a useful alternative to the traditional epidemic curve. Case prevention was demonstrated by identifying uninfected people with multiple concurrent exposures. Concurrent, overlapping exposure in infected people rendered traditional "source" and "spread" criteria moot.
Conclusions: The current discussions of partner notification may be informed by recognizing that it is a subset of a broader and potentially more powerful approach. This approach calls some basic tenets of syphilis epidemiology into question.