Using Tech to Track and Warn People at Risk of Sexually Transmitted Diseases

In a controversial operation that kicked off last month, officers from Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) officers have been using apps from social dating websites like Facebook, Tinder, and Grindr to reach out to individuals they believe are at the risk of contracting STIs.

This crackdown was triggered by the threatening STI statistics in Iowa.

Internal health records show that the area has reported more and more cases of sexually transmitted diseases since 2010. Gonorrhea, Syphilis, and Chlamydia are the most common STDs in the region.

This is what the state of affairs looks like in Iowa according to data from IDPH that focused on the period between 2010 and 2018 alone.

  • Chlamydia victims increased by 39%
  • Gonorrhea patients went up 168%
  • Syphilis increased by a staggering 316%

So how did the officers identify these people at risks of contracting STIs?

Let’s say a user diagnosed with an STI visits a health facility. The officers talk them into a voluntary interview, which will include disclosing the partners at risk. Dating sites help them check the patient’s profile and locate sex mates who are difficult to locate.

With this info, the medical officer sends messages to the victim’s partners to warn them of the risks of exposure to sexually transmitted diseases.

Shannon Wood, one of the executives at the IDPH spearheads the crackdown. She personally sends texts to the various recipients warning them of possible exposure to an STD and requests them to reach out to a doctor for medical attention.

The contents of the message include wording like:

“I have info that you might have made contact with an individual with a serious sickness. You must get in touch with me to discuss this matter.”

Identifying individuals at risk— people who’ve made sexual contact with STD victims

To narrow down to an individual at risk, the officers in the area question the people they diagnose with sexually transmitted diseases in the various health facilities.

With the patient’s permission, the officers ask for the names and contact of the people they last mingled with to inform them of the possibility risks of contracting STIs.

When sending these warnings, the officers do not disclose the source of the info to uphold the privacy agreement with the interviewed victim.

The Dark side of dating apps

Iowa has particularly experienced an upsurge in STIs since the dawn of link-up apps like Tinder. These online dating solutions allow people to meet, chat, link up, and engage in sexual activity before they learn their partners.

Online dating has made it easy to get a sex partner in the digital era. People use these apps to look for mates, and some engage in sexual activity with other app users they know nothing about.

Iowa sees this digital dating culture as the culprit behind the escalating rates of sexually transmitted infections like Chlamydia and Gonorrhea in the region.

However, these apps have also made it easier for the officers to catch up with people at risk because the two sites store the details of the people every user has interacted with sexually.

Local Laws Support the Operation

And while this entire operation may seem like a breach of people’s privacy, the regulations in Iowa requires health facilities to update medical officers when a patient is diagnosed with an STI.

The law also dictates that medical officers question the STI victims about their recent sexual contacts and reach out to these people they believe are at a high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.

Woods explained that this approach of tracking people at risk and contacting them is a technique that has been used in the past to mitigate viral and bacterial infections.

Some Infected Victims Refuse to Name their Partners

But due to the invasive nature of this crackdown, the medical officers admit that some STI victims refuse to disclose their sex mates.

The unwillingness could be due to a number of reasons, but the fear of lack of confidentiality may explain best why most people won’t give out info about their personal lives.

Another group of people diagnosed with common STIs fears what will happen in case a partner at risk finds out they were mentioned without consultation.

But the IDPH says that most of the patients are willing to help them reach out to the people at risk. The department also warns the medical offices to handle with confidentiality the info issued by patients about partners at risk.

Dating Apps make it Easier to Track the People at Risk

In a shocking discovery, the medics found that some infected people do not even remember the names of the mates they’ve been in sexual contact with. Some of them could only remember the addresses or places where the hookup took place.

With these clues at hand, Iowa medics can start their crackdown on the sex partner related to an STI victim.

According to Wood, Grindr, Tinder, and Facebook Messenger have proved to be invaluable tools in the tracing of the people at risk.

“These apps make it easy and save us hours catching up with these people at the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. Furthermore, medics do not have to travel physically to a person’s location to reach them. Investigations are now as simple as going through apps and mining as much data as possible,” says Wood.

Final Words

Though the IDPH insists that the officers should try their best to take a liberal mentality when dealing with these situations, some patients are still not comfortable with the operation.

And while Wood insists that the crackdown is not to find out “who is having sex with whom,” the IDPH may still need to give further assurance.

In general, the idea is excellent and may help reduce the spread of infections in Iowa. But its invasive nature may need a better approach if the health experts are going to assist more and more people at risk.