Syphilis cases rise sharply in Erie County, linked to online-arranged encounters

Jan 6, 2016

New cases of syphilis in Erie County have surged nearly fourfold over a five-year span. Local health officials say anonymous sexual encounters arranged online are fueling the spread of the sexually transmitted disease.

According to the Erie County Health Department's numbers, there were nearly 40 new cases of syphilis reported in 2011. Last year, that number jumped to 157. The sharp increase, according to officials, is linked to men who are having sex with other men, often times in encounters arranged through social media apps designed to find like-minded partners.

Such encounters help the participants remain anonymous and, officials warn, increases the challenge of countering public health threats such as STDs.

"Traditional public health disease control strategies that we've used in the past, that have been successful, are not always successful in these cases because many times men are hooking up online or on these apps and meeting partners which they don't even know their name," said Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein.

Another problem facing health officials is that some STDs do not immediately reveal themselves. Some of the rashes caused by syphilis, Dr. Burstein noted, may not necessarily appear in the genital area of a patient and may be confused with other conditions.

"Many times people may not even have clinically apparent symptoms," she said. "Nobody would know. That's why it's very important to get tested." 

Another issue along that line is the fear of being judged. Raymond Ganoe, chief executive officer at Evergreen Health Services in Buffalo, says humans are sexual beings by nature. In order to work with patients they use a "harm reduction" model.

"Instead of us saying 'hey, quit using drugs' or 'quit having sex,' we say 'where are you at right now?' and 'what are you doing?' and after we've developed some trust and relationships, we talk about where would you want to be and how safe do you want to be and how do we get there," said Ganoe, who added that his staff does include abstinence among the options discussed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide comprehensive information about sexually transmitted diseases and offer an app that lets users learn where they can be tested. More information can be found here.

Given the development in recent years of drugs that treat STDs, health officials admit that there is also a feeling of overconfidence and lack of appreciation for the seriousness of these illnesses among many who are sexually active. It reminds many in the field of the AIDS epidemic thirty years ago.

"Some of the kids we're working with here weren't even alive when people were dying of AIDS," Ganoe said. "They didn't live through that horrible epidemic that a lot of us did."