Jake over at Pure Pedantry has a post up about eCards used to warn of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and while the idea is certainly humorous, it’s probably a really good idea. The story has popped up a few times in the last several months, most recently in the New York Times. The basic idea is this: you hook up with someone, find out you have and STI, and then email them anonymously through a third party service to let them know they’ve been exposed and need to get checked out. These third party services usually provide health care links as well.
Anonymous internet hook-ups are becoming commonplace. Many services on the web allow for seeking out anonymous partners for one-time encounters, and this trend has been associated with a rise in STIs.
Multiple anonymous hook-ups are dangerous. For example, syphilis, an unpleasant and potentially deadly multi-system disease, is on the rise. The initial manifestation of syphilis is a painless sore called a “chancre” (and I’ll spare you a genital pic). The bacteria (or spirochete) that causes syphilis is present in large numbers in these lesions, and they are very infectious.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “If I saw that, sex wouldn’t even be an issue!” Now imagine if the chancre were, say, in the back of the throat. You’d be none the wiser (unless you did a full physical exam on your partner). After you’ve had syphilis for a while, the chancre heals up and you may develop a diffuse rash. Later on, the spirochete can damage your brain and spinal cord causing “generalized paresis of the insane”, which is as bad as the name would indicate. It can also affect blood vessels, causing deadly aortic aneurysms. The field of syphilology is enormous, and to go into the entire disease here would be a huge endeavor, but the point is that syphilis is easy to catch, easy to miss, and can disable and kill you. AND it is only one of many STIs that can be equally devastating.
If caught early, syphilis, like many other STIs, is curable. But some STIs are not, and prevention is the best policy. After prevention, early treatment is the best “plan B”, and that’s where these eCards come in.
Avoiding anonymous hook-ups is a really, really good idea. Practicing safer sex (condom Condom CONDOM!!) is a must. If you do find you have an STI, informing your partners one way or another is the only ethical thing to do, and while anonymity has its problems (e.g., eCards in spam boxes or going to wrong recipients), in this case it’s better than nothing. High-risk sexual activity is not that easy to define. Anyone who has multiple partners or fails to wear a condom is higher risk. Anyone engaged in higher risk behaviors should get regular screening for STIs. It can save you, your partners, and your surviving relatives a whole lot of grief down the road.