Syphilis, which appeared to be an STD of the past, appears to be making a huge comeback and it could be the result of social media dating apps.
According to the National Coalition of STD Directors Executive Director David Harvey, infection rates are much higher than they have been for the last 20 years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there has been a 17.7 percent rise in the number of syphilis cases from 2014 to 2015.
Keeping track and controlling the spread of the disease is difficult since symptoms don’t tend to arise for about a month after someone is exposed. Depending on the disease’s stage, a person may suffer from multiple symptoms or nothing.
Technology is making it difficult to track the disease. According to Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Division of STD Prevention Medical Director Katherine HSU, a person who is positive for syphilis gets reported to the CDC anonymously. The department works with that person to identify any partners they may have exposed so that they can be notified of the infection but in a discreet manner.
Hsu said the dating apps have made it harder to identify partners because of the anonymity. Most people don’t know who their sex partners are, unlike the 90s and before. She said people are learning about each other through a profile picture and short bio. Each app is different, and people may only know of their partner’s username or first name.
Hsu said some people are deleting their profiles before her division can make them aware of the STD exposure.
In their effort to combat the rise in STDs, dating apps like Tinder are doing more to help. Many have created a “Safety Tips” section under their “Settings” that talks about protection measures like condom use and provides the CDC website link on STD testing.
Miriam Hospital Immunology Center’s HIV/STD Testing and Prevention Services Director Philip Chan said dating apps need to educate their users about STD prevention and awareness. He noted that many gay dating apps have already taken this step.
The CDC said about 60 percent of the primary and secondary syphilis cases are among the gay community.
Grindr, which is a gay dating apple with three million active users, provides a “Sexual Health” section on every profile where users list their HIV status and when they last got tested. It also offers a “Sexual Health FAQ” page for users to learn about HIV, how to be tested, etc.
Manhunt, another well-known gay hookup site, works with Manhunt Cases that offers health resources to its users and the LGBTQ community. This site also works with public health departments to notify members who were exposed to an STD.
In the past, partner notification happened face-to-face, but technology is creating new strategies to inform people of a possible disease outbreak. The CDC is training public health professionals to create partner notification profiles on Manhunt. They will be identified with a special logo and only reach out to users when exposure to an STD is suspected.
Hsu contact investigation is changing thanks to the newer tools, allowing the agency to go on social media and using public data to find people through their handles.
Written by Mark Riegel, MD
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