Barcelona outbreak of rare venereal disease raises unprotected sex alarm

Experts point to increase in anonymous encounters organized on the internet and via mobile applications

An outbreak of a rare sexually transmitted disease, barely recorded since the 1980s, has raised the alarm at health centers in Barcelona.

In 2011, 72 people in the city were diagnosed with lymphogranuloma venereum, a disease that infects the lymph nodes, the highest number for 30 years. The first incidences were recorded in 2007 when seven people were diagnosed. Since then 146 cases have been detected.

The group most affected by the outbreak is homosexuals, the majority of them- 94 percent- also HIV carriers, a fact that has alerted the local health department to an increase in the number of risk groups and HIV carriers indulging in unprotected sex.

Only four of those infected last year were diagnosed with lymphogranuloma at the same time as they were diagnosed with HIV, says a report jointly produced by the Barcelona Public Health Agency (ASPB) and experts on sexually transmitted diseases at the Mar, Vall d'Hebron and Clínic Hospitals, which detected the outbreak last September.

The number of people infected is negligible in relation to the size of the risk group- the ASPB estimates there are 15,000 HIV carriers in Barcelona- but the rise in this type of disease worries the experts. "The fact that the guard is dropping in relation to sexually transmitted diseases is dangerous," says Gemma Martín Ezquerra, a doctor at the Mar Hospital and co-author of the study.

"The incidence is minor for now but we must stay alert and keep an eye on the evolution of the outbreak," adds an ASPB spokesman.

The researchers connect the outbreak- which has also been recorded in other European cities, including London and Berlin- to an increase in anonymous sexual encounters brought about by the social networks and to similar encounters arranged using mobile applications based on users' geographical locations.

"Barcelona is a fashionable city for this type of encounter, for which people from other countries turn up," says Dr Martín Ezquerra. Of the 70 cases recorded in Barcelona last year- the other two were detected in foreigners who don't live in the city- 41 percent were diagnosed between July and September, the normal time for these kinds of encounter in the city.

Lymphogranuloma is a sexual infection caused by a kind of chlamydia. It can cause genital ulceration, vomiting, diarrhea and, if left untreated, external genital deformities. However, once detected- the ASPB recommends calling 93 441 46 12 if symptoms are experienced- the outlook is very positive. "With adequate treatment it usually disappears after around three weeks," says Martín Ezquerra. "The disease itself is not a problem but it is usually linked to other more serious illnesses caused by having unprotected sexual relations."

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