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Dating Apps Unleash New Era of Syphilis

Dating Apps Unleash New Era of Syphilis

Syphilis infection rates recently hit the highest peak in 20 years, and the rise of infection can be linked to dating apps.

According to National Coalition of STD Directors, syphillis rates are through the roof, the highest they've been in 20 years, and the rise of infection can be linked to dating apps. Syphilis is a mysterious creature, and it can manifest itself with a chain reaction of deadly symptoms or at times, no symptoms at all. The slow-moving virus can become fatal if untreated.

Sound familiar?

Like HIV, after a syphilis diagnosis, any partners that may have been exposed are notified anonymously in some states such as Massachusetts. It's the phone call no one wants to receive: “I regret to inform you that you may have been exposed to syphilis.” Then the case is reported to the CDC, which tracks disease trends.

Between 2014 and 2015, the number of syphilis cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) rose by 17.7 percent, rising from 63,453 to 74,702. And here's the kicker: 60 percent of those cases involved male-on-male sex. According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Division of STD Prevention & HIV/AIDS Surveillance, this rise in syphilis cases is exacerbated by the prevalence of dating apps.

Syphilis can only be detected by untrained professionals by a small sore at the site of infection, which may or may not develop into a skin rash. In the beginning, it is considered primary syphilis. Once a rash develops it is considered secondary syphilis. By the time it becomes tertiary syphilis, you can expert severe medical problems that affect the heart and brain, and that's when organ failure begins. Once syphilis spreads to the brain, it becomes neurosyphilis and it can even spread to the eyes, which is called ocular syphilis. Its severity is up to Mother Nature, but it can quickly become a serious problem if nothing is done to control the virus.

There is strong evidence that syphilis was one of the largest “gifts” that Christopher Columbus gave to the native peoples in the West Indies. When penicillin eventually came around, syphilis lost some of its bite, but the misuse of antibiotics has rendered some treatments ineffective due to resistance. Despite the rise of resistant strains, common penicillin is still the weapon of choice.

Unfortunately, syphilis is more prevalent in the LGBTQ community, as are other STDs such as HIV. Philip Chan is the director of the HIV/STD Testing and Prevention Services at the Miriam Hospital Immunology Center in Rhode Island. “The majority of [syphilis] cases are among gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men,” Chan told USA Today. One explanation is the coexistence of HIV itself, which is accelerated when a patient is co-infected with both diseases.

In Kitsap County, Washington, health officials have also sounded the alarm over a disturbing rise in syphilis cases. Since the beginning of 2016, at least 30 new cases of syphilis have been popping up across the county. Close by in Snohomish County, Washington, health officials reported a whopping 112 percent increase in syphilis cases. In Snohomish County, 80 percent of syphilis cases involved male-on-male sex.

In Florida, the rash of syphilis cases is being dubbed a “Syphilis Tsunami” by one billboard ad. Over 2,200 new cases of syphilis were reported from 2013 to 2015. Even in Montana, syphilis is making an unwanted and unexpected “comeback.”

Dating apps like GRINDr provide a “sexual health section” where users can list their STD status, however it's unlikely that the section is used very often. GRINDr is becoming involved with Building Healthy Online Communities (BHOC), a research team devoted to support HIV and other STD prevention practices. Tinder offers a “Safety Tips” section that provides the obvious, that using condoms and sound judgment prevents STDs.

Using dating apps, as we all know, is like dating on steroids. Everything is sped up and amplified, including STD infection rates. Syphilis was nearly erased from the face of the earth about a decade ago, With a little help from dating apps, the scourge of syphilis has been reborn once again.

But there is good news. Syphilis is 100 percent preventable and treatable, when the right course of action is taken. Syphilis is “The Little Engine that Could” and can seem harmless at first—until you eventually experience dementia and organ failure. Syphilis can be cured with the right regimen of antibiotics if they are taken daily or as directed. But antibiotics won't undo the permanent damage that syphilis can do to your body.

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Benjamin M. Adams