The number of syphilis cases has more than tripled over the last five years in Erie County, New York — home to Buffalo — and local health officials are pointing their collective finger squarely at gay dating apps.
Erie County recorded 157 new syphilis cases in 2015, up from 40 in 2011, and 83 percent were in men, according to The Buffalo News:
Health Department investigators trace the surge in recent years to men who have sex with other men and typically find their partners through their phones. A proliferation of GPS-enabled smartphone apps make it possible for men to find like-minded and available male sex partners almost anywhere.
“If people can hook up that fast, that’s all the much faster a disease can be transmitted,” said Evergreen Health Services CEO Raymond Ganoe, whose Buffalo clinic identified about 40 new syphilis cases last year.
The surge in syphilis cases correlates to the rising popularity of smartphone social media apps that enable a lifestyle of instant gratification for users who seek it. While some gay men use these apps to nurture friendships, dates and long-term relationships, others use them as hook-up apps to find sex partners who are nearby, interested and available.
Of course, the spike in syphilis cases in Buffalo is part of a national trend. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of primary and secondary syphilis rose 15.1 percent from 2013 to 2014, and the US saw the highest number of total cases since 1994. Overall, 91 percent of new cases were in men, and 83 percent of those cases were in men who have sex with men:
Although gay dating apps are almost certainly a factor, the problem is probably not quite as simple as health officials in Buffalo make it sound. After all, men were having casual sex with other men in parks and bathrooms long before gay dating apps came along. Other likely factors include decreased condom use among gay men, due to the increasingly common practice of serosorting and the advent of PrEP.
The Atlantic addressed the issue in an article titled “The Return of Syphilis” earlier this month:
Some health officials point to the growing role of technology in people’s sex lives, specifically apps like Tinder and Grindr that facilitate casual sex between partners who don’t know each other’s sexual histories. But there’s no conclusive evidence that these apps have played a role in syphilis outbreaks, especially given that Tinder was released more than a decade after syphilis rates began rising again in 2002.
Sarah Kidd, an epidemiologist at the CDC, believes dating apps can pose a diagnostic problem, since controlling the spread of syphilis relies on being able to notify an infected person’s sexual partners. “We do know that with the rise of so many apps, it’s easier to meet partners and not necessarily have identifying information and not be able to track them down later,” she says. …
Kidd suggests that people might be less careful now that the threat of HIV/AIDS is less immediate than it was in the 1990s, or that partners might use strategies to prevent HIV transmission that aren’t as effective for other STDs. Condoms, for instance, are a good precaution but not a reliable prevention method for syphilis, as the infectious sore might be on an area that remains uncovered.
Regardless of what all is causing the increase, the solution is clear. Syphilis is easily treatable with penicillin, and a U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently issued a draft recommendation saying that all adults and teens at increased risk for syphilis should be screened regularly. Those at the highest risk for syphilis are gay and bisexual men, and people with HIV.