Thursday, June 23, 2011

Officials link social media to rising local STD rates

via Bakersfield , BY Kellie Schmitt

This is some very interesting data that can ultimately help other parts of the United States think about similar correlations between social networks and rising rates.

Bakersfield resident Frank Tamayo has downloaded a smartphone application called Grindr that tells him if nearby gay, bisexual or curious men are interested in hanging out.

The free app will show pictures of men who are, say, 500 feet away, athletic and interested in dinner or a movie.

"I just turn it on, say 'You're cute' and go on from there," 33-year-old Tamayo said.

It's part of an increasing trend of men seeking friends, a date or intimacy with other men via phone apps such as Grindr, which has more than 2 million users worldwide and 7,000 in the greater Bakersfield area.

While Tamayo sees it as a great opportunity to meet new people, public health officials fear it's a factor in the more than doubling of reported syphilis cases in Kern County this year.

At the same time, the app's anonymity is making it harder to track people who may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted disease.

"It's easier to be anonymous, and it's more accessible," said Denise Smith, director of disease control at the Kern County Department of Public Health. "You can find so many people within a certain radius."

If patients at the health department's clinics test positive for STDs, nurses and counselors discreetly will try to contact their recent sexual partners. In the past several years, patients increasingly reported meeting sexual partners on websites, said Alira Medel, a disease intervention specialist.

Instead of offering phone numbers, emails or even personal descriptions of past partners, more and more patients give health workers a list of website user names, such as "sugardaddy" or "sweetdreams."

A state health investigator based at the Kern County Public Health building on Mount Vernon Avenue surfs those sites with a computer that isn't linked to the county network.

He sends a private message to the people with the user names encouraging them to contact Public Health. He tells those who respond about the exposure and encourages them to be tested.

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