State health officials are worried as the number of Montanans diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease continues to rise.

Montana’s gonorrhea numbers — expected to total 1,500 cases in 2019 — haven’t been this high in 40 years, according to the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Dana Fejes, the state STD/HIV program manager, said infections like syphilis and chlamydia have also seen a surge. She said that’s despite access to free prevention supplies, information on safe sex and confidential screenings.

“The reason we’re concerned is because of the serious health consequences that can occur to an individual with an STD if left untreated,” Fejes said. “... Sometimes, there are no symptoms and the infection is spread to others unknowingly.”

Having unprotected sex increases the likelihood of an STD and contracting HIV. While for some an infection could go unnoticed, others like pregnant women or people with a weak immune system could face further health complications.

Cascade and Yellowstone counties have the highest number of STDs in the state. But they’re not alone.

Gallatin County has seen a spike in chlamydia cases, according to state data. The county’s cases totaled 545 in 2018 — up from 348 in 2014. In 2018, the county had 25 cases of gonorrhea, which is on track to hit 49 cases in 2019.

Montana’s isn’t unique. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, syphilis and gonorrhea reports are the highest nationwide since 1991.

That’s left health officials and researchers searching for why — and many are looking toward the swipe-era of online dating.

The state health department announced a new public health campaign last week to raise awareness about STDs both online and in places where people can access care.

In that announcement, the state said social media is playing a role in Montana’s escalating numbers.

“Social media platforms and anonymous sex have further complicated the ability to reach partners to get them tested and treated,” the state said.

Fejes said Tuesday that comes from information given to the department as officials try to track down where an infection began and who else could be sick. She said early data from those conversations show roughly 25% of Montanans diagnosed with gonorrhea or syphilis found partners online and through apps like Tinder or Bumble.

She defined “anonymous sex” as when someone doesn’t have a full name for who they’ve had sex with or just know that person by their name on social media.

“This is early data at this point, and it’s information we have not necessarily collected in the past,” Fejes said.

The role social media plays in dating — more specifically, in sexually-transmitted infections — is a relatively new topic in research.

In 2018, the Gallatin City-County Health Department finished a survey in which the department asked 107 patients who tested positive for an infection how they met their sexual partner. Of the 98 people who responded, 13 said the relationship started online. A department official at the time said that fell short to explain the county’s increase.

The year before, a study from New Mexico State University questioned “Is Social Media to Blame for the Sharp Rise in STDs?”

The report authors wrote dating apps and social media opened the door to more connections and, therefore, potential exposure to someone with an STD. However, people who already had safe sex didn’t necessarily change that when they joined online dating.

A U.K.-based study last updated in 2017 determined “the extent to which finding partners online is associated with sexual risk behavior and sexual health outcomes is unclear.”

Fejes said there’s a plethora of factors that can lead to STDs and there’s still a lot to learn.

“That may just be the new method of how partners are being found in this social media age,” she said. “It’s important for us to know where people are meeting.”

She said because wherever that is, there needs to be more education about safe sex.

To find free or low-cost testing for STDs visit GetTested.MT.gov. Learn more about STDs and how to avoid them at STDFree.MT.gov.

Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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