Newly released data from the Rhode Island Department of Health indicates that from 2013 to 2014, rates of sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis and HIV have risen significantly. Officials attribute the increases to better testing and high-risk behaviors such as using social media to arrange casual and anonymous sexual encounters.

HIV cells.Share on Pinterest
Newly identified HIV cases are on the rise in Rhode Island. Some experts are attributing the increase to the growing use of social media to arrange casual and anonymous sexual encounters.

The Rhode Island Department of Health (HEALTH) have released the data to inform people living in the state of the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) that has been spreading rapidly in recent years. According to HEALTH, these increases follow a national trend.

HEALTH have announced that reported cases of syphilis have increased by 79%, cases of gonorrhea have increased by 30% and newly identified HIV cases have increased by around 33%.

The increased numbers of HIV/AIDS and syphilis cases were found to have increased fastest among gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (MSM) than in other social groups. STD infections were found to have the greatest impact on African-American, Hispanic and young adult social groups.

Transmission of STDs such as HIV was reduced during the 1980s and 1990s through the implementation of public health measures such as needle exchange programs among intravenous drug users and the routine testing of pregnant women for HIV.

Recent increases in STD and HIV rates have been attributed to both positive and negative changes. While better testing for STDs and HIV by health care providers has resulted in more diagnoses, experts estimate that high-risk behaviors have become more common in recent years.

High-risk behaviors include having unprotected sex, having multiple sexual partners, having sex under the influence of drugs or alcohol and the use of social media to arrange casual – and at times anonymous – sexual encounters.

While unsafe sex, promiscuity and intoxicants have been around for a long time, social media is a relatively new phenomenon and, as a result, has come under increased scrutiny in recent years, both from the media and researchers alike.

Around a year ago, Medical News Today reported on a study published in Sexually Transmitted Infections that found MSM using smartphone apps such as Grindr and Recon to find sexual partners had a higher risk of gonorrhea and chlamydia infection than MSM who met their sexual partners online or in clubs and bars.

A recent study investigating the use of enhanced profile pictures when online dating indicates that users of this form of social media may value attractiveness over trustworthiness when it comes to desiring to date someone.

The authors of the study state their findings suggest it is “both normal and acceptable for individuals to mislead or deceive their potential suitors.” If such attitudes are prevalent, a rise in the popularity of social media could be contributing significantly to the spread of STDs as individuals may be unaware of their partner’s sexual health status.

“These data send a clear signal that despite the progress we have made in reducing STDs and HIV over the years, there is more work to do,” says Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, Director Designee at HEALTH.

Among the strategies being adopted by HEALTH to reduce the rate of STD transmission is improving education about prevention. The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) works to make sexual health education more accessible to students and to raise awareness about STDs.

“These new data underscore the importance of encouraging young people to begin talking to a doctor, nurse, or health educator about sexual health before becoming sexually active and especially after becoming sexually active,” says Rosemary Reilly-Chammat, RIDEs HIV/AIDS Sexuality Specialist.

There are a number of simple, precautionary steps that anyone who is sexually active can take to help reduce the spread of STDs and HIV:

  • Use a condom or dental dam each time you have sex
  • Get regularly tested for STDs and HIV
  • Be aware of your partner’s sexual health status
  • Avoid sexual contact if you or a sexual partner exhibits symptoms of an STD until speaking with a health care provider
  • If diagnosed with an STD, take all medication as prescribed and avoid sexual contact until a health care provider advises that it is safe to do so.

“We are fortunate in Rhode Island to have great partnerships among state agencies, community-based organizations, and health care providers to continue to educate, test, and treat for sexually transmitted diseases,” says Dr. Alexander-Scott. “This trend reminds us that we cannot become complacent.”