Public health officials say sexually transmitted diseases are spiking in Jackson County — in part because of social media dating apps that allow people to meet up.
Rising STD rates have been recorded across the globe as apps like Grindr and Tinder have gained popularity. The apps allow users to locate prospective partners nearby.
Unlike older websites such as www.eharmony.com — marketed at people looking for long-term relationships and marriage — apps like Grindr and Tinder are geared toward those interested in immediate encounters.
In Jackson County, gonorrhea jumped from 31 diagnosed cases in 2012, to 151 in 2013 and 177 in 2016.
Chlamydia cases increased from 599 in 2012, to 740 in 2013 and 755 in 2016.
Local cases of syphilis were almost nonexistent for several years, then went from four cases in 2012, to 12 in 2013 and 26 cases in 2015, before dipping slightly to 23 cases last year.
STD cases are spiking in the county and nationwide, said Jackson County Health and Human Services Director Mark Orndoff.
“Really that’s because of social media and individuals being able to readily get in touch with one another and sometimes have anonymous sex,” he said.
Orndoff said health officials are grappling with the consequences of a new world of sexual encounters made possible by dating apps.
STDs are spiking the most in men, partly due to men having sex with men and not using protection, health officials said.
Anonymous sexual encounters make it especially difficult for public health officials to track down the sexual partners of infected patients so they, too, can be tested and treated, said Dr. Jim Shames, medical director for Jackson County Health and Human Services.
In addition to the growing popularity of dating apps, Shames attributes the rise in STDs to people being less cautious about AIDS. Once a deadly disease, HIV infection can now be managed with medication.
“This is a phenomenon we notice throughout public health,” he said. “We problem-solve and people let their guard down. For years, we saw increased condom use and people were cautious about choosing their sexual partners. HIV was a deadly diagnosis 30 years ago. As a result of that, folks at risk were being careful about their partners and using condoms.”
In Jackson County, 213 males and 46 females were living with HIV as of December 2016, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
Statewide, the HIV rate has been on a slow but steady decline since 2006, dropping from 7.7 cases per 100,000 residents to 5.26 cases per 100,000 residents in 2015, according to OHA.
But syphilis and gonorrhea have been on the rise in Oregon, with almost 20 syphilis cases per 100,000 in 2015 and more than 80 gonorrhea cases per 100,000 in 2015, OHA data shows.
Shames said people are becoming complacent about safe behavior and STDs, just as some people have become complacent about the need for vaccinations to prevent infectious childhood diseases.
“Communicable diseases can spread rapidly. We see the same phenomenon with immunizations. We almost eradicated some diseases, like measles and mumps. Now people have let their guard down, and those diseases are coming back,” he said. “We have to be constantly vigilant.”
Shames urged sexually active people to use protection and get tested regularly and treated, if necessary, for STDs.
He said the medical community also has to educate the public and do special outreach to men having sex with men.
“It’s a group we have to reach out to and make sure they get the message about safe sex and the use of condoms,” Shames said. “Any time you have a stigmatized group, they will feel uncomfortable about getting medical services and being honest and open about how they got the disease. We need to be open and accessible to all populations so everyone feels comfortable getting treatment.”
Nationwide, reduced funding for clinics that diagnose and treat STDs may be contributing to rising rates, said Tanya Phillips, health promotion manager for Jackson County Public Health.
As for the influence of apps, she said people who are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior in the first place may be attracted to the technology.
“Are apps providing a resource for people who are already risk takers?” Phillips asked.
While the jury is still out on that question, she noted science is proving a correlation between the use of dating technology and STDs.
Researchers in the Portland metro area found men infected with syphilis were more likely to have met sexual partners online and to have had more partners.
A study of thousands of men visiting a Los Angeles health center found those who met sex partners through a dating app had higher rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia compared to those who met partners in other ways, such as in person at bars or through online dating websites.
One health care foundation offering free STD testing in Los Angeles grew so concerned about dating apps it put up billboards equating Tinder and Grindr use with chlamydia and gonorrhea infection.
“While these sexual encounters are often intentionally brief and even anonymous, sexually transmitted diseases can have lasting effects on an individual’s personal health and can certainly create epidemics in communities at large,” the foundation said in a statement.
Tinder sent the foundation a cease-and-desist letter, while Grindr blocked the foundation’s ads on its app and pointed to its ongoing health education campaigns and partnerships with health care researchers.
To avoid STD infection, Jackson County recommends abstinence, being in a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has tested negative for STDs, reducing the number of sex partners, using condoms consistently and properly, and having an honest, open talk with a health care provider and your partner about STDs before having sex.