Health officials in Alberta pointed to online hook-up apps for the dramatic increase in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the province, but are apps like Tinder and Grindr really to blame?
Earlier this week, Alberta’s new chief medical officer of health said social media was “a key driver” for the soaring rates of STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhea.
“We believe one of the key drivers of this particular spike in STIs is due to the use of social media to set up sexual encounters,” Dr. Karen Grimsrud said during a press conference. “When people don’t know their sexual partners’ identities, it makes it difficult for public health to do the contact tracing for them and their contacts as far as setting up testing and treatment.”
The statistics are shocking. Health officials say the STI rates are among the highest since the late 1980s.
In Alberta last year, there were 3,400 reported cases of gonorrhea – up 80 per cent from 2014. The number of cases of infectious syphilis more than doubled from 150 cases in 2014 to 350 in 2015.
Dionne Gesink, a social epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, says social media and hook-up apps could be contributing factors to the increased rates but they aren’t the only factors.
“There is more to the story. It’s nice to think that there might be just one thing that contributes to high STI rates but it’s always more than one thing,” Gesink told Global News. “There is no magic bullet to curing them.”
“Online dating and the hook-up apps can definitely contribute to increased rates of STIs by making it easier and faster to find sex partners and it makes the sexual network more connected and more complex,” she said. “Infections can spread through a network faster depending on what the habits are that people practice around keeping themselves safe.”
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A spokesperson for Tinder said in a statement it encourages it users to review its Health Safety tips.
“While the CDC, who conducted the largest and most credible study on the topic, has never identified any connection that supports the idea that Tinder usage correlates with, let alone causes, an increase in STDs, we encourage our users to review and follow our Health Safety tips accessible through the app and on our website,” Rosette Pambakian said in an email.
It’s not just Alberta dealing with skyrocketing increases in STI numbers. Ontario has a problem too.
Gesink has been tracking syphilis in Ontario, which has gone from 359 cases in 2005 to 1,044 in 2015.
Global News has looked at the spike in gonorrhea cases across the province. There were 5,825 cases of gonorrhea reported in Ontario in 2014, up 28 per cent from the 4,542 found in 2013, up 42 per cent since the 4,097 reported in 2012. In 2015, Ontario Public Health reported 5,936 cases.
Alex McKay, executive director at the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECC), said that social media aside the real question is why people are engaging in high-risk behaviour during sex.
“Do we blame social media for existing? Or do we say how come people who connect through social media are not taking measures to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections,” McKay said.
McKay said there is no doubt that Canada has a significant problem when it comes to STIs.
“Our response to it has not been especially effective and we need to be devoting more energy to it because in addition to resulting in negative health outcomes for individuals there are very expensive public health costs,” he said.
Looking at the breakdown of the Alberta STI numbers, health officials said the female rate of gonorrhea increased by 93 per cent from 2014 to 2015, while the male rate increased by 66 percent.
Nearly half of all cases among females reported Indigenous ethnicity, according to Alberta Health. And the estimated gonorrhea rates among men who have sex with men (MSM) are 11 times higher than the provincial rate for all males.
In the majority of infectious syphilis cases (86 per cent) were MSM, and one-quarter of cases were also infected with HIV.
McKay said there needs to be renewed focus on condom use and increased access to STI testing.
“Each succeeding generation is a little bit more knowledgeable than the past when it comes to sex,” he said. “But we still have a lot of work to do.”