So­cial me­dia could be fac­tor in ris­ing syphilis rates

Meet­ing part­ners through an app has risks, ex­perts warn

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Sarah Toy

Syphilis, a dis­ease most peo­ple as­so­ciate with the past, has re­turned with a roar, and pub­lic health ex­perts think the rise in rates can be at­trib­uted at least partly to so­cial me­dia.

In­fec­tion rates are the high­est they have been in 20 years, said David Har­vey, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Coali­tion of STD Direc­tors. From 2014 to 2015 alone, the num­ber of syphilis cases re­ported to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion ( CDC) rose by 17.7%, from 63,453 to 74,702.

Along with cuts in STD preven­tion and treat­ment re­sources and pos­si­bly more re­laxed at­ti­tudes to­ward pro­tec­tion since the ad­vent of life- sav­ing HIV treat­ments, health ex­perts think the in­flu­ence of so­cial me­dia on how peo­ple meet sex part­ners may play a role in the up­swing.

“The way our so­ci­ety is form­ing part­ners is now through us­ing a lot of so­cial me­dia, and that is af­fect­ing the sex­ual trans­mis­sion dy­nam­ics we are see­ing,” said Gail Bolan, the di­rec­tor of the Di­vi­sion of STD Preven­tion at the CDC’s Na­tional Cen­ter for HIV/ AIDS, Vi­ral Hep­ati­tis, STD and TB Preven­tion.

Track­ing and con­trol­ling trans­mis­sion are al­ready tricky since the dis­ease man­i­fests as a small pain­less le­sion about a month af­ter ex­po­sure. Nick­named the “The Great Pre­tender,” it can cause a head- scratch­ing con­stel­la­tion of symp­toms or none at all, de­pend­ing on the stage.

Tech­nol­ogy has com­pli­cated mat­ters even fur­ther, said Kather­ine Hsu, the med­i­cal di­rec­tor of the Mas­sachusetts De­part­ment of Pub­lic Health’s Di­vi­sion of STD Preven­tion & HIV/ AIDS Sur­veil­lance.

When a per­son tests pos­i­tive for syphilis in Mas­sachusetts, the case is re­ported to the state pub­lic health de­part­ment, which re­ports it to the CDC with­out iden­ti­fy­ing the per­son. Trained work­ers from Hsu’s di­vi­sion in­ter­view the per­son about any part­ners who may have been ex­posed.

They then track down and no­tify those part­ners — dis­creetly, Hsu added, in a way that keeps the source of in­for­ma­tion anony­mous.

Hsu said this “on- the- ground” ap­proach has en­coun­tered sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges in to­day’s world of dat­ing apps. Be­fore, when “an in­di­vid­ual had ( pri­mary stage syphilis) and they knew the ... peo­ple they were with in the past 90 days, they could find the peo­ple.”

Peo­ple don’t know their sex part­ners as in­ti­mately as they once did; they may be in­di­vid­u­als they know mostly through a pro­file photo and short blurb. De­pend­ing on the app, peo­ple may only iden­tify them­selves by first names or han­dles, though they of­ten have the op­tion of link­ing with their Face­book ac­counts.

It is im­por­tant for dat­ing apps to pro­mote STD aware­ness and preven­tion, says Philip Chan, the di­rec­tor of the HIV/ STD Test­ing and Preven­tion Ser­vices at the Miriam Hos­pi­tal Im­munol­ogy Cen­ter in Rhode Is­land.

Gay dat­ing apps in par­tic­u­lar are start­ing to do more of this, he said.

“The ma­jor­ity of ( syphilis) cases are among gay, bi­sex­ual and other men who have sex with men,” Chan said. Ac­cord­ing to the CDC, men who have sex with men ac­counted for 14,229 out of 23,872 ( 59.6%) cases of pri­mary and sec­ondary syphilis — the most in­fec­tious stages of the dis­ease — in 2015.

LEON NEAL, GETTY IM­AGES

Tin­der, a dat­ing app.

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