October 7, 2014

Tompkins County Sees Uptick in Syphilis Cases, With Possible Connection to Dating Apps

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Syphilis rates have risen in Tompkins County, with reported cases involving those using mobile dating applications, according to the county’s health department.

While there was an average of one to three cases of syphilis reported each year from 2009 to 2013, there have already been five cases diagnosed in the area this year, according to the county’s department of health. Additionally, some cases of simultaneous co-infections were found in men ages 22 to 55 who reported anonymous encounters “arranged through mobile apps” with other men.

Although represenatives from Gannett Health Services said they cannot comment on whether or not Cornell students are among those infected, they do note the importance of students being cognizant of the increased incidence.

“Given the age range of the individuals already diagnosed, we believe it is important for Cornell students to consider their risk factors,” said Beth Kutler, a clinician at Gannett Health Services.

The “anonymous nature of the hook-ups” is particularly worrisome, she added.

Data is not available on the prevalence of such applications on campus, but Gannett staff have commented on a noticeable increase in their popularity, which they said has negative implications for students’ sexual health.

“Any sexual relationship, including hooking up with someone, includes some element of risk,” Kutler said. “My colleagues and I at Gannett encourage any student to consider the element of risk they’re comfortable taking and to take proactive steps to mitigate those risks.”

Brian Patchkoski, director of the LGBT Resource Center, said he has noticed an increased engagement with hook-up applications, especially for “people who are just at the fringes of coming out” who may be looking to explore their sexuality or gender identity under the protection of anonymity.

“There is not just one reason why someone would use these apps and we must recognize that sexual exploration is a part of development — we just want all of our students and community members to be proactive and take good care of themselves and others,” he said.

Patchcoski also said these apps can involve psychological or emotional risks in addition to the physical risks that come with hooking up.

“These applications can allow people to be cruel, anonymously,”  Patchcoski said. “These apps sometimes trivialize people’s identities to certain factors,” he said.

However, he said he does not want to disparage these networking applications, acknowledging that they are ways for people to make connections and explore as one develops their identities.

“If you are going to be utilizing these apps, make sure you communicate with the other partner,” he said. “Be more aware and recognize that sometimes within these apps we don’t know the history of the person you might be hooking up with — so be as proactive and protective of your health as possible.”

This goes for all relationships, whether initiated electronically or formed organically, according to Kutler.

“We’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t acknowledge that hooking up with your best friend can be just as problematic as ‘swiping right’ on Tinder,” Kutler said. “Sex is complicated.”

While Gannett provides information and services on campus regarding sexual risks, resources are also available throughout the surrounding area. Tompkins County was recently awarded a $16,000 state grant to fund programs to educate the public about syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections, as well as provide testing and treatment, according to a city announcement on Sept. 16.

One such project is the Peace of Mind Community Partnership, a cooperative initiative by Cornell, Ithaca College, the Southern Tier AIDS Program, health services at Tompkins County Coummunity College, Planned Parenthood of the local and regional health departments, according to Gannett. The campaign strives to encourage testing for syphilis and other STIs, she said.

“While some STDs can be cured, others cannot,” Kutler said. “Comprehensive STI screening, based on individual risk factors, should be done routinely for all sexually active individuals.”