STD Awareness: Can the HPV Vaccine Prevent Head-and-Neck Cancer?

Photo: Heather Hazzan, Self Magazine

The HPV vaccine Gardasil protects against human papillomavirus, a prolific virus that causes many types of cancer. In fact, although it was initially approved to prevent cervical cancer, the most common HPV-associated cancer is head-and-neck cancer. Last month, Gardasil 9 was finally approved for the prevention of head-and-neck cancer.

That certainly took long enough! We’ve known for a long time that HPV is behind the epidemic of head-and-neck cancers, and we’ve known that the HPV vaccine guards against infection with this virus. With HPV causing more head-and-neck cancers than any other HPV-associated cancer in the United States, this approval was long overdue.

Bearing the Burden of HPV


Gardasil 9 is now approved for the prevention of head-and-neck cancer, shining a light on this epidemic.


Although its routine use in boys and men has been recommended since 2011, the HPV vaccine is still primarily thought of as a “girl’s vaccine,” invaluable for its ability to prevent cervical cancer. For the first few years of its existence, Gardasil was only FDA-approved for girls and women, and since then it has struggled to escape its gendered connotations. While this new FDA approval doesn’t change who is eligible to receive the vaccine, it does shine some awareness on head-and-neck cancer, and gives parents more evidence that this anti-cancer vaccine is important to give to sons, not just to daughters.

Head-and-neck cancers can strike anywhere from the lips to the larynx, or voice box, and up into the sinuses and nasal cavity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 11,300 U.S. men are diagnosed with head-and-neck cancer every year, compared to 2,200 U.S women. Continue reading

STD Awareness: New STDs on the Block, and STDs Making a Comeback

Lately, a lot of us have had tunnel vision when it comes to infectious diseases. We talk about how long the virus that causes COVID-19 can live on various surfaces, even though other viruses can live on those same surfaces for even longer. We wonder if it can be sexually transmitted, while there are dozens of other bugs out there that are even more easily passed through sexual contact. There are more microbes out there than just the one that causes COVID-19, and we need to be mindful of their risks, too.

Last month, the New England Journal of Medicine published a piece about “old-timey” STDs that are making a comeback (think shigellosis), newer STDs to hit the scene (think Zika virus), and “classic” STDs that are finding new ways to harm us (think antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea). Let’s meet this rogues’ gallery of sexually transmitted bugs.

Shigella bacteria. Image: CDC

Shigellosis is a diarrheal disease caused by Shigella species of bacteria, which can be found in abundance in feces — making it relatively easy to pick up these bugs during sexual encounters involving oral-anal contact (“rimming” or anilingus). While Shigella are mostly transmitted through nonsexual routes, researchers have discovered that sexually transmitted shigellosis is much more likely to be resistant to multiple antibiotics — making them a serious threat.

Reduce your risk by practicing good hand hygiene and keeping a clean kitchen and bathroom; using condoms and dental dams during sex. Continue reading

STD Awareness: COVID-19 and Semen

You might have read the headlines earlier this month that the virus that causes COVID-19 has been found in semen. Is that true — and if it is, does that mean COVID-19 can be transmitted sexually?

The short answers to those questions are yes, and we don’t know yet.


Several viruses that aren’t thought of as sexually transmitted can be found in semen.


JAMA recently published a short article about a small study conducted in China. The authors took semen from 38 people who were either recovered from COVID-19 or still in the throes of infection. Of those 38 people, six were found to have the novel coronavirus hiding out in their semen — adding semen to the list of bodily fluids in which the virus can lurk, including saliva, urine, and feces.

This study is too limited to make sweeping generalizations, but it does seem to show that it’s possible — though perhaps not overwhelmingly likely — for someone suffering from COVID-19 to be none the wiser as the virus wends its way to the body’s southern hemisphere, where it can hang out in the testes. Plus, the virus was detected not just in people with active disease, but also in people who had recovered, raising the possibility that someone can carry the virus below the belt even after symptoms are gone. Continue reading

STD Awareness: COVID-19 and Your Sexual Health

The world has found itself in the clutches of a pandemic, and every day we’re learning about the ripple effects this new virus is having in everyone’s lives, not just the lives of those who cross its path. These devastating consequences include millions of people losing their jobs and hospitals stretched so far past capacity that they can’t adequately treat all their patients.

There are plenty of other downstream effects, too. For example, some people are worried that we could be staring down the barrel of a shortage of a common antibiotic called azithromycin, which cures chlamydia — the most common sexually transmitted bacteria in the world. Nine drug manufacturers recently reported azithromycin shortages to the Federal Drug Administration. With chlamydia rates at a record high, 2020 is a bad time for the antibiotic that cures it to be in short supply. Untreated, chlamydia can cause infertility and chronic pain, and can increase risk for HIV transmission and acquisition.

Apparently, the president of our country, who is not a health expert by any stretch of the imagination, endorsed azithromycin as a treatment for COVID-19 in combination with a drug that treats lupus and arthritis. There isn’t much in the way of evidence that the drug combination recommended by the president actually can treat COVID-19, but there are currently clinical trials underway, so time will tell how effective that regimen actually is. Continue reading

COVID-19 Is No Obstacle to Planned Parenthood’s Sexual Health Care

On March 31, 2020, Gov. Doug Ducey and the Arizona Department of Health Services declared people in Arizona need to continue practicing “social distancing” as a way of preventing the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

The “stay-at-home” order, which will stay in effect until at least April 30, directs Arizonans to self-isolate in their homes, leaving only in a limited set of circumstances, such as to visit essential businesses like grocery stores and pharmacies, receive health care or assist a family member in doing so, serve an essential work function, or get outdoor exercise. Anything that is not deemed as an essential need should be avoided.

What Is Social Distancing?

Social distancing, also called physical distancing, means keeping space between yourself and other people outside of your home. To practice social or physical distancing:

  • stay at least 6 feet away from other people
  • do not gather in groups
  • stay out of crowded places and avoid mass gatherings

Continue reading

STD Awareness: Stigma and Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Stigma and disease have always gone hand in hand, with some diseases more stigmatized than others. Over the millennia, people living with diseases ranging from leprosy to AIDS have been burdened by moral judgments, while people with conditions like common colds or Alzheimer’s disease are seen as randomly — and innocently — afflicted.


Even the most “sex-positive” among us might find ourselves inadvertently stigmatizing others.


These days, stigma swirls around the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, arising from the fear and anxiety that has recently gripped the world. As reports of hate crimes against people of Asian descent show, some people are confusing vigilance about protecting public health with excuses to lash out at certain populations. This stigma can also show itself in seemingly benign comments, like apologizing for coughing and promising that it’s “only allergies” — which I have seen happen even in conversations taking place in “virtual spaces” like Zoom or Skype, where disease transmission wouldn’t have been possible. The idea is that a COVID-19 infection is shameful, while allergies are socially acceptable.

Probably no set of diseases is more stigmatized than sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) — despite the fact that they’re also some of the most common infections across the spectrum of humanity. In fact, we’re in the midst of an STD epidemic, with tens of millions of cases every year in this country alone. Gynecologist Jen Gunter writes about how an STD diagnosis, like no other disease save cancer, has the unique power to bring a patient to tears. A common STD like herpes or genital warts can make someone feel like “damaged goods.” But clearly it’s not the virus itself that makes someone “damaged goods” — it’s the way it was transmitted. For proof, look at the way people react to infections caused by genetically related viruses, such as the herpesvirus that causes chickenpox or the strains of HPV that cause warts on someone’s fingers or toes.

Using Stigma to Punish

Even the most “sex-positive” among us might find ourselves inadvertently stigmatizing others when we talk about having a “clean” STD test or make people with herpes the butt of a joke. When we do that, we participate in a system that frames STDs as just punishments for engaging in the “wrong” kinds of sexual activities. Continue reading

Know Your Rights: Advocating for Your Sexual and Reproductive Health

This guest post comes from the Planned Parenthood Arizona Education Team’s Casey Scott-Mitchell, who serves as the community education & training coordinator at Planned Parenthood Arizona.

It’s important that all young people have the information and resources they need to take care of their sexual and reproductive health. However, depending on the state you live in, you might encounter barriers in the form of laws and policies that affect your ability as a young person to access your sexual and reproductive rights. Through our work of providing sex education in various Arizona communities, we know many people aren’t fully clear on what their rights are when it comes to sexual and reproductive health — so consider this a quick crash course!


A critical step in protecting your sexual health is to understand your rights.


In terms of information about sexuality, there is no state law requiring sex education in schools. It is up to each school district to decide whether they provide sex education, and what type of curriculum they want to use if they do provide it. We know there are many districts across Arizona that have chosen not to offer sex education to their students or to provide limited information about sexuality (e.g., abstinence-only sex ed).

The lack of consistency around sex education is problematic because research shows that most youth and their families want their schools to offer comprehensive sex ed  — a holistic curriculum that covers topics like consent, healthy relationships, STDs, birth control, abstinence, etc. Furthermore, when youth receive comprehensive sex ed, they are more likely to have healthy relationships and make choices that will reduce their likelihood of unintended pregnancies and STDs.

When it comes to accessing resources and services that help young people protect their health, there are a few laws in Arizona that are important to know about: Continue reading