Number of newly contracted cases in North Texas has almost doubled in two years, statistics show
A bad economy and the proliferation of new cruising venues such as the Grindr application for Apple’s iPhone may be among factors fueling a recent spike in syphilis infections in North Texas, according to Ruben Ramirez, community health programs manager at Resource Center Dallas.
Final data on new HIV/AIDS cases in North Texas in 2009 remained unavailable this week due to a change in federal surveillance guidelines, according to a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services.
However, statistics from DSHS show that the number of newly contracted syphilis cases has almost doubled in the last two years in Dallas and Tarrant counties — going from 240 in 2007 to 478 in 2009.
Ramirez, who oversees Resource Center’s Stomp Out Syphilis Program, said he believes part of the increase is due to better screening and education. But he added that there also may be other factors.
"The question is, is it the economy? Because if we’re looking for something that’s impacting folks on a wider scale, what else is there?" Ramirez said. "Some people are selling their services, if you will, to make the bills. More people are idle, and so it gives them a lot of down time to go online and seek sex partners."
People seeking sex partners online also have a steadily increasing number of venues in which to do it, Ramirez added. In addition to Web sites, GPS-based applications like Grindr — which reportedly is adding 2,000 new users per day worldwide — allow people to search for potential sex partners based on how far away they are.
"If you do look at the number of social networking sites where sex is concerned, they’re peaking," Ramirez said. "Sexual partners are more accessible by accessing online venues or just your downloadable app on your smart phone."
Zachary Thompson, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services, agreed that the social networking craze — including "sexting" among young people — likely is contributing to the spread of syphilis and other STDs.
"People are connecting with people, and they really don’t know their status," Thompson said. "What happens is, people are making quick decisions and they’re having to suffer the consequences of getting an infection because they did not practice safe sex."
A breakdown of the newly contracted syphilis cases according to behavioral risk categories — such as "men who have sex with men" — wasn’t immediately available. But health officials say that in general, the disease is equally prevalent in homosexual and heterosexual populations.
Thompson noted that many of the newly contracted syphilis cases are occurring in people ages 15-24. In Dallas County in 2009, for example, 144 of the 294 cases were in this age group.
"I think we’re just going to have to own up to that fact, that this population is sexually active, and they’re past the abstinence education part of it, so now we’ve really got to focus on safe-sex practices," Thompson said. "This is always going to be the most challenging age group to try to reach."
Ramirez said in the gay community, young people may be more likely to practice unsafe sex because they didn’t witness the tragic impact of the AIDS crisis.
"If you have a risk for, let’s say syphilis, you probably have a risk for HIV and other diseases as well," Ramirez said, adding that the presence of syphilis also makes people more susceptible to contracting the virus that causes AIDS.
"If you have open sores and what have you, then there’s no telling how easy the door is opened," he said.
Ramirez said anyone who’s sexually active should be tested regularly for syphilis and HIV. Both Resource Center and the health department offer free syphilis tests.
Syphilis is easy to cure with an antibiotic in its early stages, but if left untreated it can lead to serious complications or even death.
For info on testing at Resource Center, call 214-393-3700 or 877-Stomp-Out, or go to StompOut.org. For info on testing at the health department, call 214-819-1819 or 214-819-2155.