“I hate this bug,” Kevin Spacey’s character says in the 1995 viral thriller Outbreak. Surely the folks over at the Southern Nevada Health District are muttering the same thing upon receiving data that syphilis infections have spiked again—128 percent since 2012 in Clark County, with nearly 90 percent involving men who have sex with men. And it’s not just syphilis. SNHD medical epidemiologist Tony Fredrick says chlamydia is running rampant in the Valley, too. “[STDs] kind of travel together. If you have one, you should test for the others.”
The news is hardly a surprise; the U.S. saw a whopping 20,000 syphilis cases in 2014, with men who have sex with men comprising 83 percent of those cases. So what’s causing the surge in sores and the risky sex that enables them? Reasons abound: blasé attitudes about an easy-to-cure infection, high methamphetamine use by gay men, reluctance to undergo regular STD testing, low outreach and screening access in minority communities, lax attitudes about condoms (especially by users of the HIV-preventative drug PrEP) and—the most-discussed culprit—the proliferation of dating apps like Grindr, Tinder and Scruff, which facilitate anonymous hookups. “That’s a whole subworld, to put it lightly,” says Vince Collins, HIV services manager at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada.
SNHD and the Center—the latter offering free syphilis and HIV testing, which is overseen by the former—have strategies in place to battle the bug, which can surface in the form of lesions and rashes, or remain invisible to its human host (and, if untreated, cause serious complications). Doctors are being encouraged to inquire about the sexual history of their patients. The Center is blanketing the Valley with safer-sex kits that foster conversation. Mobile screening vehicles are being dispatched in areas where residents may be less likely to patronize government-run clinics. And professionals like Collins are maintaining a non-judgmental, holistic tenor to ensure the message to get tested gets through. “It’s important to be healthy,” he says. “If you decide to have multiple sex partners, that’s a huge responsibility, and one you have to take seriously.”