Syracuse, N.Y. – A sharp spike in syphilis in Onondaga County is being blamed in part on the proliferation of gay dating phone apps that make it easy for men to quickly find sex partners.
The number of cases of the potentially deadly sexually transmitted disease nearly doubled in Onondaga County from 15 cases in 2012 to 29 in 2013. During the same period, the number of cases in New York outside of New York City (a.k.a. upstate) increased from 375 to 490, a 30 percent increase. Syphilis is increasing in both urban and rural areas across the state, according to the state Health Department.
The state and county health departments recently issued alerts to health providers, urging them to be diligent about screening for the disease and treating it.
People often do not notice the initial symptoms or mistakenly think they are minor abrasions or heat rashes that do not need medical attention. “Syphilis is a very sneaky disease,” said Dr. Cynthia Morrow, Onondaga County’s health commissioner. “Untreated, it can be devastating.”
Syphilis is a bacterial infection. The first sign of syphilis is usually a painless sore. It is spread by direct contact with a syphilis sore during anal, vaginal or oral sex. Untreated syphilis can lead to destruction of soft tissue and bone, heart failure, blindness and other conditions. A woman with untreated syphilis can transmit the disease to her unborn child, which can result in death or deformity of the child.
Nearly all the syphilis cases in New York last year involved men, and more than 70 percent involved men who reported having sex with other men, according to the state Health Department.
Men over age 30 accounted for most of the cases in Onondaga County.
When a syphilis case is reported, public health workers try to identity the infected individuals’ sex partners so they can contact them and advise them to get tested and treated. As part of their investigation, public health workers ask people infected with syphilis if they use phone apps such as Grindr or Adam4Adam to find sex partners.
Grindr, a free app, uses global positioning technology to allow men to find nearby sex partners. Morrow said people often use these apps to arrange anonymous hookups.
“It is alarming to see the number of people who use these apps,” Morrow said. “They are significantly contributing to the spread of sexually transmitted disease.”
It’s often impossible for public health investigators to track down an infected person’s anonymous sex partner or partners they met through a phone app, she said.
Joanne Jimenez, prevention services supervisor at ACR Health, a Syracuse agency that works to stop the spread of sexually transmitted disease, said many people, including heterosexuals, seek anonymous hookups through social media networks and picking people up in bars.
Some people engage in risky, unprotected sex just to survive, she said. “We deal with people who are homeless and couch surfing,” she said. “They might engage in sexual activity just so they can have a place to stay and sleep that night.”