Health department uses popular dating app to spread health alert

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MONONGALIA COUNTY, W.Va. (WDTV)— This year, Monongalia County Health Department officials had a problem. An outbreak of syphilis occurred, almost exclusively among the male gay and bi-sexual community. So health officials began to think about how to reach the community affected.

MCHD reached out to officials from AT&T and Verizon to try to expand this initiative nationally, but were unsuccessful.

That is when Dr. Lee Smith had an idea.

"He said about a decade ago, from a global health conference, in a presentation from a South African," an idea was presented that came back to him, said Emily Yox, Program Analyst for the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

The speaker had contracted with cell phone providers in South Africa to display public health alerts on customer's phones. Dr. Smith took that idea and evolved it to a more modern technology: online dating apps.

The health department teamed up with Grindr, a dating app for gay, bi-sexual and transgender men, to display alerts within 50 miles of the county. When clicked, these alerts redirected to the health department's information page on syphilis.

"21,933 unique individuals saw the message, and just shy of 2,000, so 9%, tapped on the message to gather more information" said Yox.

That was just over the course of the first month. The ads ran every two weeks between May and October, and displayed on the dashboards of over 70,000 people.

According to a blog post on the National Association of County and City Health Officials website, Dr. Smith says it is their hope to continue partnering with various agencies to get other public health messaging out.

"It is a wonderful idea," said Brad Grimes of the West Virginia University LGBTQ+ Center, "The more we can put it out there, the messages of being mindful of our health and the health of the partners that you are interacting with, the better."

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