Reality Check: Online dating blamed for rise of syphilis cases in Buncombe County
BUNCOMBE COUNTY, N.C. -- Online dating could be to blame for a rise in reported syphilis cases in western North Carolina.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reports last year in the western part of the state nearly 50 percent of people with syphilis said they met their partner online using a dating website or a mobile dating app.
Across the state, 564 cases of early syphilis were reported in 2012. Two years later, that number nearly doubled to 1,113.
Two hundred ninety-six of those 2014 syphilis cases were reported in Mecklenburg County and 177 were in Wake County.
Buncombe County had much less because the population is much smaller. However, the rate increase was still more than double from six cases in 2012 to 14 in 2014.
One in 10 Americans have used a dating site or mobile dating app. Those websites and apps are being used for various reasons depending on the user.
"I've used OkCupid and Tinder," Maile Emile, 19, of Asheville said. "It's like just people who really just want to hook up. It's not really ever dating. It's like one-night stands kind of stuff."
"I met my baby girl's mother on Plenty of Fish. I never wanted to be with her mother. It just happens," Trevor Ridge of Asheville said.
In the most recent years, more and more online daters are getting more than they bargained for.
"I have gotten an STD from someone and I don't know who it was, but it was from someone I had met on Tinder," Emile said.
Emile isn't the only one, according to the medical director for Buncombe County Health and Human Services, Dr. Jennifer Mullendore, who says both gonorrhea and syphilis rates are up.
"Every case of diagnosed syphilis there's the thought that that's just the tip of an iceberg, that there are people out there who may not come and seek care and how the infection can be spreading to other people," Dr. Mullendore said. "So, anytime we see an increase in numbers, we get worried about what is the actual impact on our community."
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has projected 14 early diagnosed syphilis cases in Buncombe County for 2015, which is the same as the year before. While that number is low compared to the population, it's an increase from six cases in 2012.
"Data from the state shows that in 2015 in the western North Carolina area about half of people who were diagnosed with syphilis and were asked the question said they had found their partner online. In the prior two years, it was only about 35 percent, so we're definitely seeing that people are using online sites or apps to find their sex partners," Dr. Mullendore said.
Is there a way to stop the spread of syphilis as online dating foot traffic speeds up? Michael Harney, a prevention educator with the Western North Carolina AIDS Project, isn't so sure we can do anything but adapt and teach prevention.
"It doesn't surprise me completely that some of these syphilis cases or other STD cases would be related to online dating. It's sometimes about our socialization I think that we may or may not always know the people that we're meeting and know their histories and their pasts," Harney said. "In a general sense, I think the public health department is concerned that there may be an outbreak in syphilis cases. And syphilis is easy to treat in all stages, but it is a sign that people are having some unprotected condom-less sex and the contact that they may be having is putting them at risk."
Not knowing much about the person you met online who's carrying that STD is the real problem for public health officials.
"It also makes it really hard for public health to do an investigation when all you know is the screen name of your partner because we need to find these people. We need to tell them that they're a contact to a case of syphilis. We need to get them treatment. And when we can't find them, we can't inform them of their infection and we can't stop the spread," Dr. Mullendore said. "We didn't know that that's how people would find partners and so we're sort of reacting now to this is how people are finding their partners."
Public health officials are racing to catch up to this growing and convenient trend of finding someone online. Their message has become tread lightly and protect yourself since you don't know who's on the other side of that profile picture or username.
"Use condoms and ask the right questions," Ridge said. "Get off the computer. Just get out there. Go back to meeting people."
"I would say to get tested like after every couple people that you sleep with if you do frequently sleep with people and meet them online," Emile said.
Buncombe County public health officials say there have been two cases of early syphilis reported through the end of January of this year, which is typical.
To see syphilis rates in your county, click here for a list of all 100 counties in North Carolina.