Increases in the rates of three major sexually transmitted diseases in Rhode Island have led local health officials to warn that high-risk behaviors could be to blame, including the use of social media to “arrange casual and often anonymous sexual encounters."
"These data send a clear signal that despite the progress we have made in reducing STDs and HIV over the years, there is more work to do," Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director designee at the Rhode Island Department of Health, said in a statement. "This trend reminds us that we cannot become complacent."
The department, according to a written statement, found that high-risk behavior, including “using social media to arrange casual and often anonymous sexual encounters, having sex without a condom, having multiple sex partners, and having sex while under the influence of drugs or alcohol,” as well as increased testing, was the likely cause for the spike in STDs. While the department was able to track STD rates from 2013 through 2014, national data is only available until 2013 and it’s unclear if STDs are going up nationally, as well.
At least one other county has seen a startling rise in STDs, and it is such a problem that health officials at the STD clinic for Salt Lake County, Utah, have started to ask about specific dating apps when meeting with patients.
Lynn Beltran, an epidemiologist at the clinic, said she’s not surprised to see a rise in STDs, given the rise of those dating apps and what she sees as changing attitudes on sexual relations.
“It’s been the perfect storm,” said Beltran. “Our attitude kind of shifted, where it became more acceptable to engage in casual sex ... then to find someone in a certain mile radius.”
Beltran said she and her team ask about the dating apps to understand if patients' partners could be at risk. She said that when websites were more popular, she and her staff would register as users to reach out to people who may have been exposed to STDs, including HIV. Now that apps are more popular, she said, it is more difficult to reach out and alert users of potential exposure.
“My staff would register as users on those on sites and go in and send them a message,” she told ABC News. “They would go on and say, 'Can you please call me? I have some important medical information for you.'”
In her county, she said, she has seen an uptick in syphilis and gonorrhea, and many of the newly diagnosed patients say they are sexually active through dating apps.
Some HIV experts say the dating apps likely are not to blame, but instead blame a lack of funding for education and prevention.
“Don’t blame social media -- this is about our failure to provide young people with comprehensive, effective sex education and access to condoms" and affordable medical care, said Anthony Hayes, managing director of public affairs and policy for the Gay Men's Health Crisis
He also cited lack of available medications that can help stop an HIV infection after exposure.
"Until we make these crucial investments that will save lives and money, these numbers are going to keep going up," he said.
Beltran added that the Rhode Island report does not mean people should be shamed for using dating sites, but that they should be educated on staying safe.
“I think this is the wave of the future, and we need to approach it not with a shame,” she said.
She said it will be important for health departments are able to “help people be informed and know what their risks are.”