Social media possible factor in rise of sexually transmitted diseases

Mirroring a national trend, the rate of sexually transmitted diseases is increasing in Washington state, and social media might be one of the factors by enabling more anonymous sex.

The rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis have risen over the last few years in Washington. Chlamydia is the most commonly reported STD, with the rates highest among 20- to 24-year-old women.

In 2018, Washington ranked 14th in the nation in the number of syphilis cases at 11 per 100,000 in population — equal to the national rate. The total number of cases was 802.

The many possible causes for increases in STDs include improved testing and reporting of cases, changes in the organisms and in behavior, including connecting with partners via social media, said Edie Jeffers, spokeswoman for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.

“We don’t have clear evidence that any single factor is the main cause. Likely, it is a combination of these factors,” Jeffers said.

The health department has noticed over several years an increase in individuals using online sites to arrange anonymous sex, said Evelyn Manley-Rodriguez, the agency’s HIV-STD investigation coordinator. The department tries to reach out to the partner who has been exposed to an STD by a person who has been diagnosed with one — while protecting confidentiality, she said.

The role of social media in making it easier for people to hook up stretches across all age groups and sexual identities, officials say.

“People need to know their own status but also the status of the people they’re having sex with,” said Nigel Turner, communicable disease division director for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. “The more anonymous the sex is, the more risky it’s going to be.”

In 2018, Washington ranked 31st in gonorrhea with 151 cases per 100,000 in population (11,207 total cases) and 36th for chlamydia with 465 per 100,000 in population (34,449 total cases.) For both of those STDs, Washington ranked below the national rate.

From 2000 through 2017 In Pierce County, figures from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show:

Reported chlamydia cases more than doubled, from 2,073 to 5,421. Per 100,000 in population, that’s a jump from 294 to 618.

Gonorrhea cases more than tripled, from 536 to 1,774. Per 100,000 in population, the increase was from 76 to 202.

The number of primary and secondary syphilis cases increased from five to 66. Per 100,000 in population, the rate increased from one person to nearly eight. Primary syphilis is the early infection where a sore exists. With secondary syphilis, the infection spreads throughout the body and the symptoms can include fever, rash on the hands and feet, malaise and swollen lymph nodes, according to health officials.

State Department of Health officials say congenital syphilis is a growing problem.

From 1995 to 2013, there were only 13 reported cases of babies born with syphilis in Washington. But from 2014 to 2018, there were 23 cases.

The disease occurs when a mother passes the infection on to her baby during pregnancy. Congenital syphilis can lead to losing a baby during pregnancy, a baby born dead, a baby born early, low birth weight, or the baby’s death shortly after birth.

Nationwide, the number of babies born with congenital syphilis in 2018 was the highest it’s been since 1995.

To combat increasing rates of STDs, the CDC recommends:

Adults and adolescents from 13 to 64 should be tested at least once for HIV.

Sexually active women younger than 25 should be tested for gonorrhea and chlamydia every year. Women 25 and older with risk factors such as new or multiple sex partners or a sex partner who has an STD should also be tested for gonorrhea and chlamydia every year.

Pregnant women should be tested for syphilis, HIV, and hepatitis B starting early in pregnancy. At-risk pregnant women should also be tested for chlamydia and gonorrhea starting early in pregnancy. Testing should be repeated as needed to protect the health of mothers and their infants.

Sexually active gay and bisexual men should be tested at least once a year for syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea. Those who have multiple or anonymous partners should be tested more frequently for STDs, such as at three- to six-month intervals.

Sexually active gay and bisexual men might benefit from more frequent HIV testing; for example, every three to six months.

Anyone who has unsafe sex or shares injection drug equipment should get tested for HIV at least once a year.