Hawaii STD epidemic driven by social media and dating apps

There is a sharp rise in the number of cases of sexually transmitted diseases in the United States say health officials. Remarkable rise has been noted in Hawaii and has been attributed to the popularity of online dating and sexual intercourse with multiple partners.

In Aloha state there has been a significant rise in the number of cases of Chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhoea. The rates of these infections have reached a three decade high say the officials. For example, in 2008 there were 5972 cases of Chlamydia infection which rose to 7,732 cases in 2018. Similarly, cases of gonorrhoea were recorded at 611 in 2008 and 1496 in 2018 respectively. Syphilis too is making a major come back with only 38 cases in 2008 and 180 cases in 2018 respectively say the officials.

According to Gerald Hasty, of Hawaii's Department of Health Harm Reduction Services Branch, the rise of online dating could be associated with this rise in the number of STDs across the nation. He said that people meet up potential sexual partners on social media and dating apps and this helps them make connections with more individuals. Having sex with acquaintances online could translate into unsafe practices and perhaps has led to this rise in STDs he said. He said in his statement, “As people rely on digital means of making connections, it can lead to circumstances where they might be more exposed to infection without them knowing it.” He added, “More partners, more chances to get infections.”

Image Credit: Daxiao Productions / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Daxiao Productions / Shutterstock

Hasty said, “All three are [near or] at their highest rates in about 30 years,” adding, “The fact that they’re all increasing is not desirable but it’s also not unexpected.” Hasty added that those who are infected have little knowledge of their infection at least in the initial stages. These periods include durations when the person is most infective but has no signs or symptoms of STDs and thus can easily spread it to sexual partners. He added that there has been a decrease in condoms and other protective barrier methods that could protect against getting sexual transmitted infections. This has led to the spread of these infections, he added. Hasty said this situation “sets the stage for the infections to be spread.” He explained, “Lack of regular screenings or routine screenings contributes to increasing rates.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the whole of United States is witnessing a rise in STDs that corresponds to Hawaiian numbers. The rise has been steady for the fifth year in a row says the CDC report.

The CDC published a report on its page on the 8th of this month titled, “Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance Report.” The report speaks of the sharp rise in the number of cases of the three infections and says that the saddest part of it is the rise in the number of newborns dying of congenital syphilis. The number of such deaths has risen from 77 in 2017 to 94 in 2018, the report says. Newborn syphilis has risen by 40 percent overall with over 1300 cases reported nation-wide says the report. There is a high incidence of congenital syphilis is “Texas, California, Florida, Arizona, and Louisiana” says the CDC with atleast one case reported from each of the other states as well.

Between 2017 and 2018 there has been a rise of 115,000 cases in syphilis, 580,000 cases in gonorrhoea and 1.7 million cases in Chlamydia infections respectively says the CDC. The most infectious phase of syphilis is the primary and secondary syphilis. There has been a 14 percent rise in these cases which translates to more than 35,000 cases says the CDC. This rise is the highest witnessed since 1991. Among women of childbearing age there has been a 36 percent rise in syphilis cases between 2017 and 2018. This means that more and more babies are at risk of congenital syphilis say experts.

Jonathan Mermin, M.D., M.P.H., director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, in a statement on the page said, “STDs can come at a high cost for babies and other vulnerable populations...Curbing STDs will improve the overall health of the nation and prevent infertility, HIV, and infant deaths.”

The CDC says that the three STDs are treatable using antibiotics. Left untreated these infections may lead to infertility, raised risk of ectopic pregnancy and getting HIV infection. Congenital infection occurs when the infection passes from the mother to the newborn baby. This could lead to raised risk of miscarriages, abortions, still births and birth defects in the baby.

To prevent infections in the babies, mothers need to be screened for STDs especially for syphilis, says the CDC. Gail Bolan, M.D., director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said, “There are tools available to prevent every case of congenital syphilis. Testing is simple and can help women to protect their babies from syphilis – a preventable disease that can have irreversible consequences.”

According to the CDC several factors are responsible for rise in STDs. Some of these include poverty, homelessness, drug abuse, reduced condom use (especially among vulnerable groups, youth, gay and bisexual men) and safe sex awareness, lack of access to testing and care for STDs and others. The CDC says that there have been reductions in the funding for local and state level STD prevention program. The report reads, “in recent years, more than half of local programs have experienced budget cuts, resulting in clinic closures, reduced screening, staff loss, and reduced patient follow-up and linkage to care services.”

To address the problem, the CDC “provides resources to state and local health departments for STD prevention and surveillance.” In addition, “CDC supports health departments in conducting disease investigations, responding to public health outbreaks, providing training for health care providers, community engagement and partnerships, and other efforts.” The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is also developing a “Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) Federal Action Plan (STI Plan)”. The plan would be released in 2020 says the report.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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