STD Awareness: Genetics and the Gonococcus

Illustration: CDC

Illustration: CDC

Ever since the discovery of effective antibacterial therapies less than a century ago, humans have been able to easily cure gonorrhea, the sexually transmitted scourge that laid waste to fallopian tubes and robbed newborns of vision. Most of us in the developed world have forgotten that this disease was once a leading cause of infertility in women and blindness in babies — and still is in much of the developing world.

Unfortunately, gonococci — the species of bacteria that cause gonorrhea — have been evolving resistance to every antibiotic we’ve thrown at them, including sulfonamides, penicillins, tetracyclines, macrolides, fluoroquinolones, and narrow-spectrum cephalosporins. We have one remaining first-line gonorrhea treatment left: extended-spectrum cephalosporins, which include cefixime, which is taken orally, and ceftriaxone, which is administered as a shot — and resistance is emerging to those drugs, as well.


Gonococci don’t swap potato salad recipes at family reunions — they swap genetic material!


The emergence of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is considered one of the most pressing problems in infectious disease — just two years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named it an “urgent threat,” and indeed, gonorrhea seems to be evolving resistance to drugs at quite a rapid clip. Gonococci can acquire resistance to antibiotics in three ways.

First, a genetic mutation can endow bacteria with special antibiotic-fighting powers, making it harder for a drug like penicillin to attach to their cells and destroy them. Such a mutant is more likely to gain evolutionary traction if it finds itself in an antibiotic-drenched environment in which resistance to that drug allows it to “outcompete” other bacteria. Indeed, antibiotic resistance was first documented in the 1940s, just years after sulfonamides and penicillin were introduced as the first effective cures for gonorrhea. Continue reading

Let’s Talk Contraception: Contraceptive Changes on the Horizon

MicrogestinThe Affordable Care Act has undeniably improved women’s ability to receive preventive care that includes contraception. Insured women are now able to have any FDA-approved birth control provided to them at no cost as part of their preventive health care. Access to contraception has been shown time and again to improve the lives of women, their children, and their families by allowing them to plan and space pregnancies, decreasing maternal and infant mortality and also increasing their economic stability.


Some states are taking steps to make birth control less expensive and more convenient to obtain!


The Affordable Care Act has also undeniably opened up a Pandora’s box of contraception-related issues.

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) states that “contraception is an essential part of preventive care and all women should have unhindered and affordable access to any FDA approved contraceptive.” In their yearly report, “Access to Contraception,” they advocate 18 recommendations, which include:

  • over-the-counter access to oral contraceptives that is accompanied by insurance coverage or some other cost support
  • payment coverage for 3- to 13-month supplies of birth control to improve contraceptive continuation

In the United States, statistics show that half of all pregnancies are unintended. A recent study has shown that if women who were at risk for unintended pregnancy were able to easily access effective birth control (such as the Pill) at low cost and without a prescription, their rate of unintended pregnancy would decrease significantly. Continue reading

Teen Talk: The Truth About Tampons

tamponsIf you had told the 13-year-old version of me that someday, I’d be writing about tampons on a blog, my first reaction would be, “Eww, gross!” But here I am, writing about tampons. Life can take you in unexpected directions.

When I was growing up, tampons had a mixed reputation. There were those people who thought that tampons would somehow make you lose your virginity. Then there were fears about infections, or the chemicals that were used.


In a school or in a pool, tampons are safe and pretty cool.


Me, I was just worried they’d hurt, and I never wanted to use them. My refusal to use a tampon meant that I couldn’t go swimming in gym class — and everyone knew that I was on my period. There I was, sitting in the bleachers as everyone else was splashing around. I knew I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to wear a tampon — during lunchtime, a few of us quietly talked about our fears, but none of those other girls joined me on the sidelines. I think they were more concerned about their classmates knowing their business. During our six-week swimming unit, only a few girls sat out their periods in the bleachers.

Tampons weren’t the right choice for me at that time, but for other girls, they were convenient and comfortable. If you’re curious about tampons but have some concerns, it might be worth looking into them so you can make an informed decision. I’m glad we have so many options to deal with our periods — my mom would tell me about these crazy belts with buckles or pins that they’d have to put up with every month. But you have a ton of things to choose from when finding the products that work best for you. Continue reading

Where the Revolution Continues: Inside the Second Annual Body Love Conference

A speaker at the 2014 Body Love Conference. Photo: Body Love Conference

A speaker at the 2014 Body Love Conference. Photo: Body Love Conference

The Body Love Conference debuted last year, riding on Tucsonan Jes Baker’s breakthrough success in body-positive blogging. Baker’s dating woes — and how they affected the way she saw herself in the mirror — sent her on a personal journey of body acceptance. Before long, the personal became political as she launched a blog called The Militant Baker, a place where could share with others what she had learned on her own journey. The Militant Baker soon reached a readership of about 20,000 — and then nearly a million as some of her content went viral.


We are maligned for wanting control over our bodies.


But Baker, along with a team of like-minded advocates and volunteers, knew that the movement needed something else as well: a safe but more public space for seeing, feeling, and asserting body love, where empowering words could translate into empowering actions. The Body Love Conference was their brainchild, and their months of preparation to make it happen paid off on April 5, 2014, with an event that drew more than 400 people.

The momentum continued this year with the second annual Body Love Conference, held at the Pima Community College West Campus on June 6. The message was the same, but a lot of things were different this year. Baker passed the torch to the other BLC volunteers so that she could turn her attention to her first book, slated for release on October 27. Meanwhile, the BLC team decided on a smaller, regional conference, so that they, too, could focus on something further out: a national “headliner” conference in 2016. Continue reading

Is Douching Safe?

This vintage douche ad claims that its product is “safe to delicate tissues” and “non-poisonous.”

Douching is the practice of squirting a liquid, called a douche, into the vagina. Many people believe it helps keep the vagina clean and odor-free, and some are under the impression that it helps prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. An estimated 25 percent of American women 15 to 44 years old douche regularly. But just because douching is widespread doesn’t mean it’s safe; indeed, there are two possible mechanisms by which douching might be harmful.

First, douching might alter the pH of the vagina, changing its ecosystem. You might not think of a vagina as an “ecosystem,” but the bacteria and other microscopic organisms that live there sure do — and altering their habitat can harm the beneficial microbes that live there, opening the door for disease-causing microbes to take over the territory. Frequent douching can result in the vagina’s normal microbial population having difficulty reestablishing its population.


Douching increases risk for infections and fertility problems, and has no proven medical benefits.


Second, a douche’s upward flow might give pathogens a “free ride” into the depths of the reproductive tract, granting them access to areas that might have been difficult for them to reach otherwise. In this manner, an infection might spread from the lower reproductive tract to the upper reproductive tract. Douching might be an even bigger risk for female adolescents, whose reproductive anatomy is not fully formed, leaving them more vulnerable to pathogens.

While douching is not guaranteed to harm you, there is no evidence that it is beneficial in any way. Establishing causation between douching and the problems that are associated with it is trickier — does douching cause these problems, or do people who douche also tend to engage in other behaviors that increase risk? So far, the best evidence indicates that douching is correlated with a number of diseases and other problems, including sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), bacterial vaginosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, fertility and pregnancy complications, and more. Continue reading

Breaking Down Myths About Comprehensive Sex Ed

The following post was written by Julie, a Planned Parenthood Arizona intern and an Arizona State University student majoring in biological anthropology and women and gender studies. She has a passion for reproductive health, and hopes one day to pursue medical school and become a provider for an organization like Planned Parenthood.

teensOpponents of sex education take many forms. Some are large organizations with a broad mission of promoting conservative values, while others are small, local groups who work to establish abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in schools. They cite anything from “reversing the decline in moral values in our nation” to “restraining evil by exposing the works of darkness” as a mission statement, but they all share a common theme: the mischaracterization of sexuality education programs through inaccurate descriptions of research, and the use of fear tactics to promote their own agenda.

Below, you’ll find some of the common myths that opponents preach about comprehensive sexuality education, plus the research-based facts that debunk them.

Myth: Sex education only encourages teens to have more sex.

Fact: Evidence shows that teens who receive sexuality education wait longer to have sex and have fewer partners than teens who don’t. Young people going through puberty are naturally curious about their sexuality, especially when they’re bombarded with sexual imagery through TV, movies, and the Internet. Comprehensive sex education doesn’t pique their interest, it gives them the tools to understand and interpret the sexual messages they receive on a daily basis.

Myth: Premarital pregnancy and STD rates have skyrocketed since sex education began in the 1960s.

Fact: This is a blatant untruth that opponents of sexuality education can’t even back up with data. Teen pregnancy rates increased slightly in the mid-20th century, but CDC reports show that national averages have been on a steady decline since then. In fact, states that require comprehensive sex education in their classrooms have the lowest rates of teen pregnancy in the country. The numbers don’t lie — comprehensive sex ed works. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Gardasil and Gendered Double Standards

male female teens largeDespite the fact that it’s been approved for males for years, Gardasil is still largely seen as a vaccine for girls, and human papillomavirus (HPV) is still thought of by many as a virus that only impacts the female population. The fact of the matter is that HPV can have serious consequence for boys and men, and Gardasil is an important tool in protecting their sexual health. Why, then, does the association between girls and Gardasil persist?


Let’s stop thinking of Gardasil as the cervical cancer vaccine. Gardasil is a cancer vaccine, period.


Before Gardasil’s introduction, the pharmaceutical company Merck launched an HPV-awareness campaign to get a buzz going for their upcoming vaccine. Their talking points could be boiled down to one simple fact: HPV causes cervical cancer. Outside of the medical field, HPV was a little-known virus, and Merck strove to connect HPV and cervical cancer in the public’s mind so that, after it hit the market, Gardasil’s value would be easily recognized.

So the origins of the association between girls and Gardasil lie in its marketing — and the fact that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) initially only approved its use in females. From its introduction in 2006 until 2009, Gardasil was only FDA-approved for use in girls and women, and its routine use in males was not recommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices until December 2011.

While Gardasil’s website is currently gender neutral, archives show that before FDA approval for males, it contained photos of young women and female-specific language. This initial focus on female recipients could have “feminized” Gardasil, entrenching its association with girls and women in the cultural imagination. Some scholars say that, by only recommending it for one sex, the FDA implicitly assigned liability for HPV transmission to females, and advertisers framed the woman as a disease vector in taglines targeting females, such as “spread the word, not the disease.” Although a male’s sexual history is a major predictor of a female partner’s HPV status, girls and women were assigned sole responsibility for their HPV status while boys and men were not similarly burdened. Such messages downplayed the male role in HPV transmission as well as HPV’s effect on males. Continue reading