Facebook causes syphilis, says Prof Peter Kelly, Director of Public Health, NHS Tees?

March 26th, 2010 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, evidence, media, secret data | 14 Comments »

Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 27 March 2010

After the Mail’s definitive headline of last year “How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer” (in the same week as a story about a radioactive paedophile, no less) comes a competitor. “Facebook spreads syphilis” was the front page headline in the Sun on Wednesday: “sex diseases soaring due to facebook romps”. The Mail was quick to follow, with “Facebook ‘sex encounters’ linked to rise in syphilis”, while the Telegraph had “Facebook ‘linked to rise in syphilis’: Facebook has been linked to a resurgence in the sexually-transmitted disease syphilis, according to health experts.” It even made the Star.

Where did these stories come from? A press release and quotes from NHS Tees, in which Prof Kelly, their Director of Public Health, described a rise in syphilis in his area, and explained that during contact tracing, some cases had mentioned having sex with people they met through the internet. No more. “Several of the people had met sexual partners through these sites,” he said: “social networking sites are making it easier for people to meet up for casual sex.” You can read his quotes online and decide how much responsibility Prof Kelly should take as the trigger for the story. The newspapers then bolted on a recent survey reporting that Sunderland has high use of Facebook and drew a more explicit link.

So firstly, is this link at all likely? Our supposed causal exposure is new, as Facebook opened to general users in 2008 2006. But national figures show a steady increase in STIs over the past 10 years, much more for syphilis than others, which could be due to all kinds of things (changing patterns in migration and men who have sex with men are often cited). There’s no sudden extra spike for the last few Facebook years.

And was there really a syphilis blip in NHS Tees? “There has been a four fold increase in the number of syphilis cases detected with more young women being affected,” said Prof Kelly. The numbers are small (from less than 10 to about 30) and turn out to be only for a subgroup: heterosexual people. As regular readers will know, the more you chop your data into smaller slices – by time period, by area, by behaviour group – the more likely you are to find what looks like a cluster in one of those subslices. I reckon theirs might be a true blip, but it would be nice see the overall syphilis figures for the same time period at least.

NHS Tees refuse. I ask for other STI’s, like chlamydia, in the same period (you’d expect them all to be increased, if it’s the websites). They say they don’t have that data yet. Fair enough. I ask for data on previous years, to look at the trend, and basically they were very unhelpful. They’ll only give me 2 years, although they have more, so I can’t see a trend, and they refuse to break it down by sexuality, so the figures are incomparable, then they refuse to give any more numbers, and simply ignore emails.

Does that tell you a wider story about who’s at fault here? It’s arguably fair enough for a Director of Public Health to mention that internet dates have emerged as a theme in their contact tracing interviews. But when the story gets out of hand, and it’s attributed to you, as DPH, that Facebook causes syphilis, then what should you do?

Compare this. The same story was also picked up in the Birmingham Mail: this time they had a 2000% increase in syphilis at a local clinic, being quoted by a Ms Hyland from Birmingham University. A Birmingham medical student blogger got in touch with Ms Hyland, who said she had nothing to do with this figure, the university press office swung into action, chased the story, announced the figures weren’t from them, and had the Birmingham Mail take down story while the paper investigated.

Many people seek excuses to dismiss sexual health advice, and there’s a wealth of misinformation on the topic. When you have the chance to tackle that misinformation – when you’ve become a part of it – you grab it with both hands. From NHS Tees & their DPH there was no follow up press release, no criticism of these nonsense stories, I asked what efforts they’d made to correct them, and again, they refused to answer. Meanwhile the idea that a British DPH was dumb enough to think Facebook caused syphilis continued to spread around the world, from Australia to India, through high-traffic websites like the HuffPo and Slashdot, CNN, and another two whole follow-ups in the Telegraph, much of which began to openly mock Prof Kelly, and much of which was perfectly avoidable.

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14 Responses

  1. kkbundy said,

    March 26, 2010 at 11:54 pm

    When sensationalism is linked to money, the result can never be truth. People who are against a certain behavior are always overly willing to jump on the bandwagon and trumpet out the new “findings”. This is profiteering ignorance at it’s worst, At the same time, this is the human race in a nutshell. In the words of Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

    How have we ever made it this far? Oh, I remember! Science!

    Blessed Atheist Bible Study @ blessedatheist.com/

  2. CoralBloom said,

    March 26, 2010 at 11:54 pm

    I think most people just feel overwhelmed by the hysterical press and so just lock their office doors and hope the papers will get bored, go away and find some story about wonky carrots

  3. Martinus said,

    March 27, 2010 at 9:07 am

    The sooner the Sun disappears behind a paywall the better.

  4. pv said,

    March 27, 2010 at 9:40 am

    So, if people are making contact with strangers on line then meeting up in real life and having casual sex (is there any other kind?), isn’t that what on-line dating agencies are for?
    Facebook isn’t a dating agency and, in my experience (i.e. my friends, colleagues and hundreds of students) it isn’t generally used as one. So, why the media obsession with Facebook? It’s moronic.

    It would be nice to think that the public is always wise to the media’s idiocy, but it isn’t actually the case. Otherwise idiotic “Facebook” scares wouldn’t be published in the national press.
    I take the view that the press promoting and taking advantage of public ignorance in this way is no different from poking fun at and tormenting disabled people. It’s all just a big private joke.

  5. fluffy_mike said,

    March 27, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    @pv Could it be that there are many parents in the UK with teenage children who are in the process of deciding at what age they allow their kids to use Facebook? (my sister and her family have been dealing with this for some time).

    The mass media has spotted this as a new, ongoing concern for parents, hence the prevalence of Facebook stories, which appeal to a key target audience.

  6. bluecat said,

    March 28, 2010 at 4:12 am

    Could it be that the Sun’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, also owns MySpace, the social networking site that is a rather less successful rival to Facebook?
    Facebook seems to be tabloid headline writer’s expression for “social site on the interweb thingy that I have heard of” – see the current Private Eye for the headline writer’s use of the term in a story about stalking which was not researched on FB and had nothing to do with it. FB is suing.

  7. Bauble said,

    March 28, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    There is alot of money to be made in these lawsuits no?

    Revenge Of The Syph – Face Book sues NHS over claims?

  8. palaceben said,

    March 28, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    Presumably no-one noticed that Sunderland is not on the Tees? The NHS Tees website www.tees.nhs.uk/ seems to cover Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Stockton and Redcar & Cleveland. There is the Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust www.tewv.nhs.uk/ which presumably covers Sunderland, but that appears to concentrate on mental health, learning disability and substance misuse services, so is probably not the one quoted!

  9. pv said,

    March 29, 2010 at 12:42 am

    fluffy_mike said,
    March 27, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    @pv Could it be that there are many parents in the UK with teenage children who are in the process of deciding at what age they allow their kids to use Facebook? (my sister and her family have been dealing with this for some time).

    The mass media has spotted this as a new, ongoing concern for parents, hence the prevalence of Facebook stories, which appeal to a key target audience.
    Yes there is a key target audience. But is there really a continuing concern? Or is it something the press is trying to whip up?
    And of all the millions of things any half-decent parent takes an interest in and has to be concerned about regarding their kids, why should Facebook take priority over anything else?
    I’m a parent myself and my son has grown up with computers around him in his everyday existence and the Internet is just a fact of his life, just like any other fact of his life. We, his parents, take an interest in all he does and I hope we do what we can to guide him. But we in turn don’t need any guidance from the morons of the British mass media.
    Decent parenting owes nothing to the demented ravings of the press. And I’d say that teenagers and their parents have infinitely more to fear from paying attention to the press than from intelligent use of Facebook.

  10. mdimmick said,

    March 29, 2010 at 1:34 pm


    I’m not sure what NHS Tees is. The Strategic Health Authorities were changed in 2006 from 28 small regions to 10 large regions. There used to be a County Durham & Tees Valley SHA; perhaps its webpage was changed to link to the four Primary Care Trusts for its former region? Or perhaps they’re collaborating to make the correct sites easier to guess – there’s a www.berkshire.nhs.uk despite there never having been a Berkshire SHA or PCT (I live in Reading). The press release actually comes from NHS Middlesbrough.

    An NHS Foundation Trust is either an Acute Trust, which runs one or more hospitals, or a Mental Health Trust which “provide health and social care services for people with mental health problems”. A Foundation Trust is basically a Trust that has been given some independence from its SHA. Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys is a Mental Health Trust and its services overlap various Acute Trusts (which may or may not be Foundation Trusts) which serve the four Primary Care Trusts.

    You’re right, obviously, that Sunderland is not on the Tees, nor is it particularly close to Middlesbrough (30 miles away). You can’t expect London-based journalists to get it right, though 😉

  11. RustedJohn said,

    March 29, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    Alas, another sensational “news” story which makes me wonder whether the press employ panic merchants to scour the country on a daily basis for such a low quality of utter mince with which to clog our daily news.

    It is usual that such mince complies with a minimum panic key word requirement (social networking + STD = bingo!). I hardly think the headline “Linkedin causes impetigo!” or “Bebo blamed for rise in gingivitis!” would have made the headlines.

  12. Corey.Ham said,

    April 4, 2010 at 11:41 pm

    this kind of infection is dangerous if not treated in time. so you can use inyections to treat the disease faster, according to a report in findrxonline this infection is dangerous for both men and woman.

  13. Jefrir said,

    April 9, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    And the rise in diagnoses couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that the NHS has been working quite hard recently to get more people to get tested. Of course not, facebook’s much more likely.

  14. mitosblog said,

    April 17, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Traditionally people would meet at bars prior of engaging casual sex. Looks like online social networking has become expert in this matter.