Dec. 18, 2003 --The Internet is a popular venue for men looking for other men to have sex. But this potentially dangerous practice also appears to be an effective way for a syphilis outbreak to spread quickly, a new study shows.
CDC researchers noticed that by 2002 San Francisco had the highest rates of syphilis of any city in the U.S. In addition, they found that the number of early syphilis cases jumped significantly among men having sex with men -- from 22% in 1998 to 88% in 2002. That set off an investigation in that city to see if the use of the Internet, by men searching for male sex partners, somehow contributed to this syphilis outbreak.
During 2002, the investigators found a total of 434 cases of early syphilis among men having sex with men. The average age of the men was 38 years with 66% of them being white.
Sexual partner information was obtained from 415 of the men. The men reported having a total of nearly 6,500 sex partners among them -- during a period when syphilis may have been acquired. This period would have been anywhere from 3 to 12 months prior to the diagnosis of syphilis. On average, each man reported having six sex partners during that time -- but numbers ranged from zero to 500.
It turns out the most common place for these men to meet was on the Internet. Close to 33% met online, while 21% met in bars, 13% in bathhouses or sex clubs, and 6% in adult bookstores.
Among the men with syphilis, the Internet became an increasingly popular place to meet other men from 2000 to 2002. While just more than 12% of the men met online during the first half of 2000, this number jumped significantly to more than 37% during the second half of 2002. And 2003 research shows this number appears to still be increasing. According to the study the Internet was a common meeting place with 44% of men reporting they met sex partners that way from January to April 2003.
The researchers note that these results should be a wake-up call for public health officials. The study shows that the Internet not only has a role in facilitating the spread of disease, but it may also be a very effective means for contacting these men and promoting disease awareness.