Are Colorado’s Higher Syphilis Numbers Tied To Dating Apps?

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Photo: Treponema pallidum, the bacteria that cause syphilis
Treponema pallidum, the bacteria that cause syphilis.

Syphilis was nearly wiped out back in the 2000's, but early numbers suggest the cases of syphilis in Colorado are up 56 percent so far this year. Researchers aren't certain as to why, but they have some theories. One possibility is that new dating apps are driving the increase.

Dr. Sarah Rowan, Interim Director of HIV and Viral Hepatitis Prevention with Denver Public Health, spoke with Colorado Matters Host Ryan Warner about the numbers. Edited highlights are below.

How apps may contribute to syphilis cases:

"So the state investigates each new case of syphilis and they ask people, 'who do you think you got this from and where did you meet him or her?' This particular syphilis outbreak, if you want to call it that, or trend, is mostly affecting men.

Ninety-eight percent of the cases have occurred in men. So they ask men, 'where do you think that you met your partner?' and about 50 percent say they met them through an internet app -- Grindr, SCRUFF, Craigslist -- so those may be associated. In some ways, internet apps make it harder to do some contact tracing -- so to say, 'well, let me find this person and ask them to get tested and ask their partners as well."

Why there's been an increase this year:

"In general, it looks like since 2008, we've had an increase almost every year in sort of an upward trajectory.

This parallels what's going on around the country. Partly this may be some natural fluctuation from 2012, little bit lower in '13 and '14, and then resuming that upward course. [...]

The underlying unifying theme is that there's probably less condom use going on. We may be testing more, people may be seeking testing more."

Why health officials are seeing less condom use:

"There's a few theories there. In one sense, there's a little less fear of acquiring HIV. It's a very treatable disease, so that may be affecting people's behavior. [...]

Also, people who are HIV-positive who take medicine successfully are very very unlikely to transmit HIV to others. So they may also feel a little less necessity of wearing a condom.

That may be related, but we're not totally sure. We have some preliminary data that that's happening."