Commentary

Latest Social Media Craze: Syphilis

Oh my.  Social media gets blamed -- justly or unjustly -- for a lot of things, but this has to be a low point: health officials in Houston are pointing to social media as a factor contributing to a sharp spike in syphilis rates in Texas’ largest city.

According to the Houston Department of Health and Human Services, social media is facilitating unprotected sex between men, which is the main cause of new syphilis cases in Harris County, with men outnumbering women by a margin of five to one. Overall 318 new cases of syphilis have been reported this year, up from 174 cases during the same period in 2011 -- an 83% increase. In terms of incidence, the rate increased from 4.2 cases per 100,000 people in 2011 to 7.5 cases per 100,000 this year. The rise is especially alarming because it reverses a trend which saw three consecutive years of decreases.

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Minority populations are disproportionately affected, with almost 60% of new cases in Harris County involving African-American men, and 23% involving Hispanics. Previous studies have shown that STD transmission rates are higher among closeted African-American men, who are less likely to use condoms when having anonymous sex “on the DL” (“down-low”).

While Houston health officials didn’t name specific social networks they think might be helping fuel the trend, there are plenty of options for men looking to arrange casual sexual encounters with other men, including Web sites like Manhunt.com and mobile apps like Grindr, not to mention mainstream classified services like Craigslist.

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