The Rhode Island Department of Health recently announced that rates of HIV, gonorrhea, and syphilis are up across the state, which echoes a national trend. Though media reports focused on the role of hook-up apps, such as Tinder and Grindr, the department attributes the rise to both better testing and a host of high-risk behaviors.
The number of syphilis cases in the state rose by 79 percent between 2013 and 2014, while incidents of gonorrhea went up by 30 percent and newly identified cases of HIV increased by 33 percent. Rates of chlamydia remained stable between 2013 and 2014, but nonetheless are up 25 percent over the last decade.
The department noted that infection rates of all STDs continued to have a greater impact on the Black, Hispanic, and young adult populations. For example, Black and Hispanic people consistently have had higher chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis rates than white people and when compared to the state average over the last five years. And the incidence of both chlamydia and gonorrhea among Rhode Islanders ages 15-to-24 far exceeded the state rate during that time period.
In addition, from 2013 to 2014 new cases of infectious syphilis and HIV and AIDS continued to increase among men who have sex with men at a faster rate than in other populations. In 2013, there were about five times as many cases of infectious syphilis in gay and bisexual males as in heterosexual males. And since 2007, men—mostly men who have sex with men—account for more cases of gonorrhea than women.
Roe has collapsed and Texas is in chaos.
Stay up to date with The Fallout, a newsletter from our expert journalists.
In a press release, the department said the increase “has been attributed to better testing by providers and to high-risk behaviors that have become more common in recent years.” The high-risk behaviors listed included “using social media to arrange casual and often anonymous sexual encounters, having sex without a condom, having multiple sex partners, and having sex while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.”
Though the media seized on the role of dating apps, there does not appear to be data to support singling out this risk behavior. In an email to Rewire, a spokesperson for the department said: “The RI Department of Health only conducts surveillance and partner services activities, so we do not have a way to measure how much (if any) apps independently influence trends in STD rates.” The spokesperson added that they did not have data on how widely used these apps are across the state or whether they have led to an increase in sexual behavior or unprotected sex in recent years.
Still, research elsewhere has suggested that hook-up apps do increase the risk of STDs. A 2013 study found that the introduction of Craigslist led to a 16 percent increase in HIV cases in 33 states between 1999 and 2008. The researchers noted: “The ease of seeking sex partners through classified ad sites may promote risky behaviors that increase transmission of STDs.”
The anonymous nature of these sites also makes it difficult for public health experts to find and test individuals who may have been exposed to an STD. The Rhode Island Department of Health spokesperson told Rewire: “Regardless of how individuals meet their partners, including [through] apps, we encourage people to exchange contact information. This information is helpful in the event that one partner may have HIV and/or a STD (and possibly not known it), and wants to inform their partner that they may have been exposed and should get tested.”
Moreover, meeting a partner via a dating app does not have to lead to unprotected sex. As the spokesperson noted, “Our goal is to help people make informed and healthy decisions regarding their sexual health. For people who choose to be sexually active, we encourage safe sex practices, regular condom use, and limiting their number of sex partners.”
“In addition, people who are sexually active should regularly get screened for HIV and STDs,” the spokesperson said.