STD Awareness: Confronting Sky-High STD Rates

For the past five years, Americans have been breaking records left and right — a good thing when we’re talking about athletic feats or scientific breakthroughs, but not so great when we’re shattering records for catching sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis are all on the upswing, with a combined 2.3 million cases in 2017 — and those are just the cases that were reported. Since most people with these infections don’t know they have them, the real number is thought to be much higher. The United States has the dubious honor of boasting the highest STD rates of all industrialized countries — though rates are also climbing in England and Western Europe.

The good news is that these three STDs are preventable and curable. Sexually active people can dramatically reduce their risk by using condoms and dental dams, or by being in mutually monogamous relationships in which partners test negative for these infections. And, because many STDs don’t show symptoms, it’s important for them to receive regular STD screening to ensure infections are caught and cured before they can do any damage.

But there’s also bad news. First, while the symptoms of these infections can be awful, they compel you to seek prompt treatment — making these awful symptoms a good thing, in a weird way. Unfortunately, most people with these infections don’t have symptoms, allowing the bacteria that cause them to spread silently from person to person. If not caught, chlamydia and gonorrhea can lead to chronic pain and fertility problems, and syphilis can lead to organ damage and even death. These infections can also increase HIV risk and be passed to a baby during childbirth. Continue reading

STD Awareness: HPV Testing vs. the Pap Test

I love writing about health and medicine, but I hate going to the doctor. I don’t like taking my clothes off for a dermatological exam, I don’t like rolling my sleeve up for a shot, and I don’t like opening my mouth for a dentist. I don’t even like having my blood pressure taken — it gives me the heebie-jeebies, and probably a case of white-coat hypertension too.


For now, pelvic exams are a mainstay — and an important part of cancer prevention.


So when it comes to something even more invasive, like the Pap test to screen for cervical cancer, I’m one of those people pining for a magic wand — a tool that a health care provider can wave over your fully clothed body to detect disease. The Pap test may have transformed a scourge like cervical cancer into one of the most easily detected and treated cancers — and for that I love it — but I still fervently wish for its demise. As long as it’s replaced by something better, of course.

Last month, an article in JAMA inspired a burst of headlines. “HPV test more effective than Pap smear in cancer screening,” said CNN. Or as WebMD put it more succinctly, “HPV Test Beats Pap.” Then, last week, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force updated their guidelines to recommend that patients 30 and older can forgo the Pap test in favor of HPV testing alone. This news might be welcome to anyone who dislikes regular Pap tests and wishes to avoid stirrups and speculums. Unfortunately, HPV tests aren’t the noninvasive “magic wand” so many of us hope for. From the patient’s perspective, the experience of undergoing an HPV test is no different from the experience of undergoing a Pap test. They both require a pelvic exam — the stuff of stirrups and speculums. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Is Mouthwash a Match for Gonorrhea’s Superpowers?

Since the 1930s, we’ve enjoyed around eight decades of easily cured gonorrhea — at least in places with easy access to antibiotics — but experts fear those days are numbered. In the past year or so, cases of untreatable gonorrhea have occasionally made headlines.

Thanks to the powers of evolution, some bacteria have acquired the multiple genes necessary to withstand the onslaught of the pills and shots administered by doctors. Gonococci, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea, are starting to win this “arms race” with humans, whose antibiotic arsenals are losing effectiveness. And with gonorrhea on the rise, gonococci may be evolving at an ever-quickening clip.


In 1879, Listerine claimed to cure gonorrhea. Today, scientists are finally testing that claim. We await the results.


Oral Gonorrhea: The Silent Scourge

Many experts believe oral gonorrhea is a key driver of antibiotic resistance. These infections usually don’t cause symptoms, and without symptoms people usually don’t seek treatment. Without treatment, gonococci can hang out in a throat for up to three months.

After transmission by oral sex — and possibly even by kissing  — gonococci can set up camp in the throat, which is an ideal environment for acquiring antibiotic resistance. They might not be causing symptoms, but they’re not sitting there twiddling their thumbs, either. If there’s one thing gonococci love to do, it’s collecting genes like some of us collect trading cards, and the throat is a gathering place for closely related bacteria species that hand out antibiotic-resistance genes for their expanding collections.

Gonococci can easily scavenge DNA from their surroundings — say, from a dead bacterium — and patch long segments of these genes into their own DNA, creating genetic hybrids between themselves and other organisms. Last month, scientists from Indiana University caught this phenomenon on video for the first time.

Continue reading

STD Awareness: Eliminating HPV-Related Cancers

Earlier this month, every major cancer center and organization in the country released a joint statement calling for the elimination of cervical cancer, along with all other HPV-related cancers. The elimination of a large swath of cancers might sound like a tall order — so far, we’ve only eradicated two viruses from the planet: smallpox and rinderpest. And we’re on the brink of getting rid of a third, the virus that causes polio.

But doing away with human papillomavirus (HPV) would herald a new chapter in disease eradication, because HPV causes cancer, meaning that eradicating HPV will eradicate the cancers caused by it. And the good news is we have all the tools we need to wipe HPV off the face of the earth — we just need to use them.


The tools to wipe a large class of cancers off the face of the earth are right under our noses — we just have to use them.


A quick rundown on HPV is in order. It’s the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world, and causes multiple cancers — cervical, head and neck, anal, vulvar, vaginal, and penile. While it’s most well-known for causing cervical cancer, here in the United States it is transitioning away from its old job, causing more head-and-neck cancers than cervical cancers. Nearly all sexually active people will be infected with HPV at least once in their lives, and though only a fraction of infections progress to cancer, its ubiquity means it still causes hundreds of thousands of cancers every year. In the United States, around 41,000 HPV-related cancers are diagnosed annually, while more than 600,000 are diagnosed worldwide. Continue reading

STD Awareness: UK Announces “Worst-Ever” Case of Gonorrhea

In late March, the BBC reported a story that was widely repeated in headlines across the world: “Man has ‘world’s worst’ super-gonorrhoea.”

The article told the story of a British man whose symptoms started in early 2018, about a month after he had picked up the bug during a visit to Southeast Asia. Once back home, his doctors were unable to cure it with the standard combination of azithromycin and ceftriaxone — “the first time the infection cannot be cured with first choice antibiotics,” the author wrote.


In most of the world, we don’t have a good picture of antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea.


Actually, a similar case of multidrug-resistant gonorrhea had been documented in the United Kingdom in late 2014, as noted in the New England Journal of Medicine. It was the first verified case to fail to be cured by the azithromycin/ceftriaxone combo — the infection didn’t go away until after the patient was given a double dose of both antibiotics, but by then it had been 112 days and the infection could have cleared on its own. By July 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) had noted that there had been multiple documented cases of gonorrhea that were “untreatable by all known antibiotics.”

What was different about the man in the BBC story was that his case of ceftriaxone-resistant gonorrhea had a higher level of azithromycin resistance than those that came before. While it may not have truly been the first case of multidrug-resistant gonorrhea that couldn’t be treated with the standard dual therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone, it was the “most serious.” Continue reading

STD Awareness: Fighting Cervical Cancer Across the World

Tomorrow kicks off World Immunization Week, a reminder that, just as disease can cross borders, so should our efforts to prevent it. Especially when we have an effective vaccine for one of the world’s top causes of cancer — but the people who need it most are less likely to get it.

Almost 90 percent of cervical-cancer deaths strike women in developing countries, where it is the second-most common cancer among women. In fact, over vast swaths of Africa, cervical cancer is the No. 1 cause of cancer death in women. (In the United States, it doesn’t even crack the Top 10.) While cervical cancer rates are holding steady in the developed world, in the coming decades they are projected to increase sharply in less developed regions.


More than 9 out of 10 cervical cancers strike women in countries with no HPV vaccination programs.


Since 2006 there has been a vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that causes cervical cancer. Unfortunately, while this vaccine is making impressive strides in the developed world, it is almost out of reach in the developing world, where it could save the most lives. To fully realize this vaccine’s potential, it needs to be distributed worldwide — not just within rich countries that can afford it.

Fighting Cervical Cancer in the Developed World

HPV has been nicknamed “the common cold of STDs” — because pretty much every sexually active person will get it at some point. It can be transmitted by vaginal, anal, and oral sex, as well as by rubbing genitals together, even without penetration. HPV can cause cancers of the throat, anus, vagina, vulva, and penis — but is most “famous” for causing cancer of the cervix (the tissue that connects the vagina to the uterus). If you have a cervix, there are two big things you can do to protect its health: receive regular Pap testing after becoming sexually active, and get vaccinated against HPV before becoming sexually active. When you take both of these steps, you’ll maximize what modern medicine has to offer. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Herpes in the Headlines

Two separate stories about herpes have popped up in recent headlines, and the news isn’t good. A “citizen-scientist” injected an untested herpes treatment live on Facebook, sidestepping preliminary studies on safety and effectiveness. Meanwhile, research into a promising herpes vaccine was shut down as the extent of one scientist’s severe ethics violations came to light. Both stories show that there is a strong demand for ways to prevent, treat, and cure herpes — and both are case studies in the wrong way to bring such therapies to market.


Unscrupulous researchers may take advantage of people with stigmatized infections like herpes.


Herpes is a sexually transmitted virus that can cause “outbreaks” of painful genital sores. Afterward, the virus goes dormant in the nerve cells, hiding from the immune system. In some people, the virus can “wake up” to cause temporary flare-ups of symptoms. Given how common this virus is, a preventive shot could help a lot of couples discuss their herpes status without as much fear of judgment and stigma.

While someday an effective herpes vaccine might be developed, recent headlines have been unfortunate examples of scientific experimentation gone horribly wrong.

Citizen-Scientists Doing it Wrong

On February 4, at a biohacking conference, Aaron Traywick took off his pants in front of an audience and injected his thigh with a syringe containing a never-before-tested herpes treatment — a type of gene therapy, a treatment that alters a patient’s DNA by inserting genes into their cells. Frustrated by the testing that pharmaceutical companies must do, and the regulations they’re saddled with, he thought his startup company could leapfrog over these steps and go straight from the lab to human testing, using himself as a guinea pig. In addition to the alleged herpes “cure” that Traywick injected himself with, his company makes a similar herpes vaccine, which they hope will prevent herpes infections in those who don’t have it. Continue reading