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Apps for gay, bisexual men tied to STI risk

By Andrew M. Seaman

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Gay and bisexual men who use smartphone apps to meet other men for sex are at an increased risk of some sexually transmitted infections, suggests a new study.

Men who used the apps were more likely to be diagnosed with gonorrhea and Chlamydia than men who met potential partners in other ways, researchers report in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections.

"We want to make people aware of the risks and benefits with any new technology," Matthew Beymer said. “We just want gay and bisexual men to love safely and love carefully.”

Beymer is the study’s lead author and an epidemiologist at the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

He and his colleagues write that apps such as Grindr and SCRUFF have become increasingly popular among members of the gay and bisexual community since their introduction in 2009.

The apps, which are marketed toward men who have sex with men, use the GPS capabilities of smartphones to find other people nearby using the same apps. Similar products exist for people seeking opposite-sex partners, and for women looking for other women.

While people may use the apps for various purposes, many use them to find sexual partners.

In August 2011, the Los Angeles LGBT Center began asking its clients - specifically men who have sex with men - about their use of these types of apps on health questionnaires.

For the new study, the researchers compared rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among men who reported different types of networking, such as with apps, websites and in-person meetings.

They had data on 7,184 men who visited the clinic between August 2011 and January 2013.

About 34 percent of the men said they only met sexual partners through in-person methods, such as at bars or the gym. About 22 percent said they only connected with men over the Internet and 17 percent said they met men only through apps. The rest used a combination of methods.

Men who used apps to meet other men were about 25 percent more likely to test positive for gonorrhea, compared with men who only met other men through in-person interactions. They were 42 percent more likely to be diagnosed with gonorrhea, compared to those who used in-person methods and the Internet.

App users were also about 37 percent more likely than men who met other men in person to be diagnosed with Chlamydia.

There was no difference in the likelihood of app users being diagnosed with HIV or syphilis, compared to men who met partners through websites or in person, however. Beymer said it may be that there were not enough HIV and syphilis infections diagnosed during the study to detect a link to the apps.

He told Reuters Health it’s difficult to know why app users may be more likely to test positive for certain STIs because few studies have looked at the men who use this technology.

“We don’t necessarily want individuals to stop using these technologies,” Beymer said. “We realize as public health professionals that meeting people will evolve with the technologies.”

“We’d like to see these applications used as an education tool in addition to their original intention,” he said.

Eric Silverberg, the founder of SCRUFF, said in an email that the app has included a link to public health resources since 2011.

“Further, numerous health agencies use SCRUFF to advertise to our global gay community,” he added.

In a statement, representatives from Grindr said it partners with numerous HIV-prevention and awareness organizations to raise awareness about safe sex. It also has a website (http://www.grindr.com/health) with information about STI testing options.

“We encourage our users to explore this page to learn the best way to protect both themselves and their sexual partners,” the statement said.

Beymer said more than anything the researchers want to empower gay and bisexual men to take charge of their sexual health and use available resources, such as STI counseling services and medications that prevent HIV transmission.

SOURCE: http://bit.ly/SRfxT7 Sexually Transmitted Infections, online June 12, 2014.

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