Debunking the Facebook-syphilis connection

Talk about your computer virus.

In a stunningly bad example of “reporting,” a UK tabloid reports a public health director in Britain has determined that Facebook is responsible for an increase in the number of syphilis cases.

According to the Telegraph, the popularity of Facebook has led to more unprotected sex with casual partners.

“There has been a fourfold increase in the number of syphilis cases detected with more young women being affected,” professor Peter Kelly said. “I don’t get the names of people affected, just figures, and I saw that several of the people had met sexual partners through these sites.”

But the BBC debunked the assertion and the reporting by the Telegraph:

So what are the facts? Apparently, in 2008 in the NHS Tees area (Middlesbrough, Stockton-on-Tees, Redcar and Cleveland) there were fewer than 10 cases of syphilis – so few that, under data-protection rules, the NHS can’t give out the exact number.

But in 2009, 30 cases of heterosexual syphilis were notified to the NHS. So, yes: a four-fold increase, but a very small sample from which to drawn any very big conclusions.

So what is the connection with social networks?

Mr Kunonga says that in all these cases there is a thorough examination of the patient’s sexual history and connections – and a significant number of people mentioned having casual sex with people encountered through social networks.

In other words, it’s casual sex that caused the increase in syphilis.

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