Friday Foolery #21 – Syphilis by Facebook

26 03 2010

The Daily Telegraph* had a shocking headline two days ago:

Facebook ‘linked to rise in syphilis’

Facebook has contributed to a resurgence in the sexually-transmitted disease syphilis, a health expert has claimed.

So the Internet is not only spreading viruses, but also bacteria? Facebook as a route of transmission of syphilis? These Facebook-users probably use Touch Screens, too.

All the commotion was based on two vague “findings”, one conclusion, and a personal observation:

  1. Syphilis cases have increased fourfold in Sunderland, Durham and Teesside
  2. These are the areas of Britain where Facebook* is most popular, well at least young people in Sunderland, Durham and Teesside are 25 per cent more likely to log onto social networking sites than those in the rest of Britain.
    (Hum, so not only Facebook?)
  3. Thus (?) Facebook is linked to rise in syphilis.
  4. Since Prof. Peter Kelly, director of pubic health in Teesside “saw that several of the people had met sexual partners “through” these sites”, he concludes that Social networking sites are making it easier for people to meet up for casual sex.” (Note*: he didn’t say: Facebook, so this conflicts with 2 again) (emphasis mine)

Poor that the “research” may be, it was big news and started of a chain reaction. The Birmingham Mail, had added a local spin on the Syphilis story (login required) which according to the medical student of  The magic of medicine contained information of an outreach officer at Birmingham, Ms Hyland, who said that according to figures from the Heartlands Clinic a 2,000 per cent (!) increase in reports of syphilis had been logged in 2007 in Birmingham.” (!  and bold are mine)

But an email correspondence of this student with Ms Hyland pointed out that she wasn’t (a) a health care worker and (b) had nothing to do with the figures reported. “She was upset by it all, and said that “I never said I was an expert and the figures are nowhere near what have been published! Figures can be obtained from the Health Protection Agency, and the rise of syphilis is nowhere near that of say, herpes or warts.”

Drama. Comedy. Burlesque.

But where do the figures come from, then? At least “@unibirmingham, in contrast to NHS Tees and their DPH, r investigating & challenging the facebook/syphilis media dumbness attrib to them” according to Ben Goldacre at Twitter.

Indeed Goldacre is trying to gather more details from NHS Tees (NHS Hartlepool, NHS Middlesbrough, NHS Redcar and Cleveland and NHS Stockton-on-Tees), but according to his tweets “Nhs Tees are slowly giving me yearly figures on syphilis/STIs in their area, almost one at a time, and with inconsistent denominators” (and less then 2 hrs later)  “omg, NHS Tees are now actively refusing to give me these figures.”

Nick Harding found where the 2000% rise in the Birmingham-area came from: heartofengland.nhs.uk, but after reporting this, the information could no longer be accessed.

Below some of the figures Goldacre did obtain via Twitter (Blue= all syphilis; Red: primary/secondary infections, note Facebook is just 6 years old). And here is a beautiful UK sexual health atlas.

Well it was not my intention to report exhaustively on this incident, because whatever the precise figures that were fabricated, the conclusion is  bulshit not justified anyway, because the NHS-Tees and/or Prof. Peter Kelly mix up correlation with causation. Or as a facebook spokesman said: “The assertion that Facebook is responsible for the transmission of syphilis is ridiculous. Facebook is no more responsible for STD transmission than newspapers responsible for bad vision.”

Oh, and comments to the initial publications (i.e. in the Telegraph) were even whittier, like:

  • That must mean water is dangerous. You know 100% of people who drink it eventually die.
    Also, eating utensils can be linked to obesity. (ruddler)

  • Quick – where is Al Gore? I am sure he will find a way to somehow relate Facebook to Climate Change. (Conservative)

Webcomic from: http://xkcd.com/552/ hattip: @doctorblogs

*I read the news in the Telegraph, but it was reported in the Sun first. Juicy Detail: Rupert Murdoch owns the rival social networking site Myspace. This is one of the aspects discussed in this excellent, more serious  post by Dr. Petra Boynton here.

Note added (27/3 0:15): Ben Goldacre just wrote a post to be published in the Guardian that deals more in-depth with the subject.


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18 05 2010
When #Twitter Gets Creepy: People Who Force you to #Autofollow « Laika's MedLibLog

[…] Friday Foolery #21 – Syphilis by Facebook (laikaspoetnik.wordpress.com) […]

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