USA TODAY International Edition
Social media could be factor in rising syphilis rates
Meeting partners through an app has risks, experts warn
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.