“Digital bathhouses”: Health experts see dating apps as the new frontier for STD
According to a September report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were more than 2 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis reported in the United States in 2016 — the highest cumulative number ever recorded. “Not only are we at an all-time high,” Gail Bolan, the director of the division of STD prevention at the CDC, told to Vox reporter, “but we’re starting to see increases in all kind of communities.”
The leap in cases in just one year is truly eye-popping. Between 2015 and 2016, the rate of:
- Gonorrhea increased by 18.5 percent to 468,514 cases
- Syphilis increased by 17.6 percent to 27,814 cases
- Congenital (spread from mother to infant) syphilis increased by 27.6 percent to 628 cases
- Chlamydia increased by 4.7 percent, to 1.59 million cases
Health experts increasingly view apps and sites such as Tinder, Grindr, and OkCupid as enablers of high-risk sex, helping people meet and hook up more efficiently than ever before. The impact of these sites is so profound they are also transforming the way health officials track and prevent outbreaks.
“We used to think about what we can do with bathhouses and sex clubs to make sure people’s risk was reduced,” said Dan Wohlfeiler, director of Building Healthy Online Communities, a public health group that works with apps to support STI prevention. These places, after all, had become important meeting points for men who have sex with men — the group most affected by the HIV epidemic.
Today, the public health focus has shifted to “digital bathhouses” Wohlfeiler said, “Now that dating sites and apps have become so common, we know we need to work with them.”
There’s just one problem: Many of the major dating networks don’t want to be involved in STD prevention, nor have they acknowledged the impact they’re having on public health.
“They are hesitant to support sexual health,” said Jeffrey Klausner, a professor of medicine and STD researcher at UCLA. “They realize that their sites could be stigmatized for being associated with STDs. They do as little as possible.”
Health officials in states around the country have linked recent STD outbreaks to the rise in internet dating. As health experts learn more about the links between high-risk behavior enabled by dating apps and STD outbreaks, they’re finding that apps make the work of tracking cases harder to do.
In particular, according to John Auerbach, president and CEO of the public health nonprofit the Trust for America’s Health, the anonymous encounters happening via apps make it harder to do contact tracing, a key epidemiological process in understanding an outbreak.
In the past, when a person was diagnosed with a serious STD, a public health official would call or meet with his or her sexual partners to talk about getting tested and on potential treatment.
But with more anonymous sexual encounters, epidemiologists may not be able to track down people’s partners and notify them that they might have an STD, Auerbach said. And that means any diseases those partners might have can spread more easily too.
An even bigger issue, said Michael Weinstein, the president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, is that apps have also changed the modes of disease transmission in sexual networks, making it easier for infections to spread.
“Because these are closed pools of people in limited geographies [using dating apps], it means that infections can spread more easily,” he said. “That’s why we call apps a ‘digital bathhouse’.”