STD Awareness: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) have been with us since the dawn of time — or at least since the dawn of sex. And, as we continue to hone our approach to preventing and treating them, STDs will always grab headlines, whether the news is bad or good.

The Good

Can the HIV epidemic be stopped?

For more than a decade, AIDS, the illness caused by HIV, was seen as a death sentence. It wasn’t until the mid-’90s that antiretroviral drugs kept the virus in check, prolonging lifespans for people with access to these medications and transforming the infection into a chronic disease. Now, those dreaming of an end to HIV are seeing reasons for optimism. No, a cure isn’t in the works — but many researchers believe we can end the epidemic through prevention.

Ending HIV transmission will take money and an efficient health care infrastructure, but we have the tools to do it. It starts with expanding access to HIV testing — an estimated 15 percent of Americans with HIV are unaware of their status. The next step is to ensure that everyone testing positive has access to antiretroviral drugs. When used correctly, these medications keep viral levels so low that the chances of transmission are virtually nonexistent. More recently, medications called PrEP — pre-exposure prophylaxis — enable people without HIV to protect themselves from infection. Condoms, of course, are a time-tested prevention tool. Gathered together, we have a pretty mighty arsenal. Here in the United States, we could stop HIV transmission in its tracks in just a handful of years. Of course, people all around the world will need access to testing and treatment to halt this scourge on a global level. Continue reading

Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

  • Photo: Lauren Walker

    A proud announcement to start the rundown this week: We are NOT backing down in our fight to expand access to abortion, birth control, and reproductive health care across the country! (ABC News)

  • If you’re searching for abortion care, be VERY careful using Google Maps — you might end up at a crisis pregnancy center instead of a legit clinic. Ugh! (Gizmodo)
  • One of the most problematic industries in modern times, for-profit health insurers, are denying coverage to people taking PrEP, which dramatically reduces the risk of contracting HIV. Awfully ironic, isn’t it? Being conscientious of your health and taking steps to avoid transmission of a deadly virus make you undesirable to insurance companies. WTF. (Jezebel)
  • The New York Times published a highly informative op-ed about how teenage mothers are infantilized after giving birth, and it is a must-read. (NYT)
  • Social conservatives in the U.S. have strong and largely unpopular views on sexuality and reproductive behaviors. When they can’t sway public opinion, they turn to restrictions and prohibitions to impose their views on others. Why they can’t simply live by their own values and then mind their own freakin’ business is beyond me. Truly. (Guttmacher)
  • Buzzfeed proclaimed “Republicans Need Women Voters To Keep Control Of Congress. The Latest White House Response to Abuse Allegations Isn’t Helping.” But my question is, will white women really care at the polls? Like, really? Pardon me for being skeptical due to their history. (Buzzfeed)
  • Hearing women’s voice is so important, and this riveting op-ed from the daughter of a physically, verbally, emotionally, and financially abusive father highlights just why access to birth control is essential for women. This should NOT be a controversial issue! (Juneau Empire)
  • The ACLU is fighting an Ohio law banning abortion for fetuses with Down Syndrome. (NPR)
  • The Trump budget cuts millions in funds for HIV/AIDS programs because this is what thugs like him enjoy doing. Harming the sick, poor, brown, and marginalized. (HuffPo)
  • When I was a clinic escort for Planned Parenthood, I was constantly race-baited by the protesters who lurked outside our health center. As a Black woman, I was shamed for the alleged racism of Margaret Sanger. I was told that “the most dangerous place for a black child was in the womb.” I was questioned about why Black women abort more than white women. And SO much more. But something I literally NEVER heard the “pro-life” set crowing about? Why Black infants die so much more frequently than white infants. It’s almost as if they don’t care about these babies once they’re no longer incubating. Imagine if the people who proclaim to love babies and children put their staunch advocacy behind saving the lives of children who are actually born? Will we ever see their care and concern for fetuses extend to born babies and children?? (The Nation)

STD Awareness: The HIV Epidemic at Home

In the United States, we understand HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — using a common narrative, one that gives us the impression that its deadliest chapters belong in decades past or distant places. It goes like this:

The disease emerged in the 1980s, cutting down young gay men in their primes and blindsiding scientists as they scrambled to unravel the virus’ mysteries. While AIDS initially whipped up mass hysteria among the general public, LGBTQ folks demanded equality, pushing to find treatments and a cure. AIDS activism and scientific research eventually led to the development of antiretroviral drugs, which tamed the plague by turning a death sentence into a chronic disease. Now, with the right medication, people with HIV can live long, healthy lives. The hysteria has died down, as most people realize viral transmission is preventable, and the infection is manageable.

One thing hasn’t changed, however: Just as it was in the 1980s, AIDS is still thought of as a disease of the “other.” Back then, it was a disease of gay men, a population cruelly marginalized by the general public. Today, it’s thought of as a disease of sub-Saharan Africa, where HIV prevalence is highest.

That narrative, however, doesn’t tell the whole story. Right here in our own backyards, the HIV epidemic continues to spread in the face of chilling indifference from those not affected. African-American MSM — men who have sex with men, who may or may not self-identify as gay or bisexual — have an HIV prevalence that exceeds that of any country in the world. In Swaziland, for example, 27 percent of adults are living with HIV/AIDS, but if current transmission rates hold steady, half of African-American MSM are projected to be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. Instead of taking this projection as a wake-up call to invest in lifesaving health policies, however, state and federal responses are poised to let it become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Contrary to racist and homophobic stereotypes, data show that black MSM aren’t more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, use drugs and alcohol, or withhold their HIV status from partners. So why are they burdened with higher HIV rates? The answer lies beyond mere behavior, embedded in policies and practices that disproportionately harm people based on race, sexuality, and geography. Continue reading

STD Awareness: STI vs. STD … What’s the Difference?

When it comes to sexually transmitted diseases, the terminology can be confusing. Some people use the phrase “STD,” some people insist “STI” is the proper set of initials, and every once in a while you might catch someone using the term “VD.” Over the years, the parlance has changed. What’s the deal?

VD: Venereal Disease

Blaming women for STDs (aka VD) is an age-old tradition.

“Venereal disease” has been in use since at least the 1600s (the Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1667 publication referring to a “a lusty robust Souldier dangerously infected with the Venereal Disease”). Around a century ago, Americans flirted with heavily euphemistic expressions, such as “social diseases,” but mostly, “venereal disease” was the terminology of choice for the better part of four centuries — slightly less euphemistic, as “venereal” was derived from Venus, the Roman goddess of love, sex, and fertility. Additionally, since at least the 1920s it was frequently shortened to “VD.” Those of us of a certain age might still remember hushed talk of VD among our grandparents, parents, or peers.

Around the 1930s, public health experts started wondering if referring to VD as a separate category of disease stigmatized these infections and those who carried them, dampening motivation to fight them with the same fervor with which the community battled other infectious diseases like influenza, smallpox, and scarlet fever. In 1936, Nels A. Nelson proposed replacing “venereal disease” with “genito-infectious diseases,” but that never caught on — you haven’t heard of GIDs, right? Continue reading

Some Good News About Three Sexually Transmitted Viruses

Scientists are hard at work finding ways to improve your health!

With so much bad news emblazoned across headlines in every newspaper you look at, the world might seem like a gloomy place. So let’s take one depressing subject — disease — and peel away the sad outer layer to find silver linings of optimism.

When it comes to infections, a lot of us blame one thing: germs, also known as “bugs” — “pathogens” if we’re fancy. Some people might not think of infectious diseases as being that big of a deal — after a round of antibiotics, you’ll be on the mend. Unfortunately, antibiotics only work for bacteria, but a lot of diseases are caused by other types of germs — for which antibiotics are no match. One type of germ is called a virus, and they can’t be cured. Sometimes they can be prevented with vaccines or treated with drugs. For example, the major strains of human papillomavirus (HPV) can be prevented with a vaccine called Gardasil, herpes simplex virus can be suppressed with antiviral drugs, and HIV can be controlled with antiretroviral drugs — but none of these infections can be cured. HPV is usually defeated by the immune system, but herpes and HIV are with you for life.

But it’s not all bad. Around the world, individual scientists have picked their “favorite” viruses and are devoting their lives to finding better prevention strategies, better treatments, and even cures. Let’s check in with some of the latest headlines touting the successes of science.

New Hope for a Herpes Vaccine

A herpes vaccine would be a blockbuster — given how common this sexually transmitted infection is, a preventive shot could help a lot of couples discuss their herpes status without as much fear of judgment and stigma.

Herpes might cause an “outbreak” — unpleasant symptoms that include genital sores — but afterward the virus goes dormant in the nerve cells, hiding from the immune system. In some people, the virus can come out of its dormancy to cause flare-ups of symptoms, but once it’s had its fun it retreats back to the nerve cells.

Earlier this year, media reported on a promising new candidate for a herpes vaccine. Using a completely different strategy than previous, failed herpes vaccines, the researchers behind this breakthrough targeted the part of the virus that allows it to hide from our immune systems. If this vaccine works as hoped, recipients will be able to mount an immune defense when exposed to the virus, blocking it from establishing a permanent home in nerve cells. It might even suppress outbreaks in people who already have herpes. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Prevention vs. Punishment

Before antibiotics, syphilis could kill and gonorrhea was responsible for most cases of infertility. Both diseases could spread from husband to wife to baby, potentially destroying families. So you’d think medical breakthroughs in prevention and cures would be welcomed with open arms.

The actual history, like the humans who create it, is much more complicated.


Compassion, rather than fear and guilt, should guide medical practice.


During World War I, sexually transmitted diseases were a huge problem — second only to the 1918 flu pandemic in the number of sick days they caused (7 million, if you’re counting). The Roaring Twenties saw a sexual revolution, and by World War II, the military was once more fretting about losing manpower to debilitating infections that drew men away from the front lines and into the sick bays.

The armed forces did what it could to suppress prostitution and distract soldiers with recreational activities. But the human sex drive could not be contained: The vast majority of U.S. soldiers were having sex — even an estimated half of married soldiers were not faithful to their wives during WWII. Victory depended on soldiers’ health, so during both WWI and WWII, the military provided its sexually active soldiers with “prophylaxis,” medical treatments that could reduce risk for venereal disease — or VD, as sexually transmitted diseases were called back then.

Anyone who thinks condoms are a hassle or “don’t feel good” should read medical historian Allan M. Brandt’s description of a WWI-era prophylactic station, which soldiers were instructed to visit after sexual contact: Continue reading

Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

  • The Washington Post has a nifty graphic explaining what the Senate health care bill changes about the Affordable Care Act. FYI: It’s really just as much an abomination as the House’s crappy version. (WaPo)
  • To be clear, Planned Parenthood would be screwed out of funding if GOP numbskulls have their way. (Newsweek)
  • The Arizona State Senate has more female members, proportionally speaking, than any other state legislative body in the entire country. So why in all hells does this state still pass so much anti-woman legislation? WHY?!? (Phoenix New Times)
  • Apparently, women in many states can’t legally revoke consent if sex with a partner turns violent during the act? The failure to cease the sex when a woman says so isn’t legally “rape” according to the courts if she has already consented. Evidently, men are entitled to “finish” (ejaculate) once consent has been given and it cannot be revoked. WTF?!?! How is this real life? (Broadly)
  • Fusion has a great piece and accompanying documentary about rising maternal mortality rates among black women in the U.S. (Fusion)
  • NY Attorney General Sues Anti-Abortion Groups for Viciously Harassing Patients Outside Queens Clinic. Good. Throw.The.Book.At.These.Fools. Who else is willing to bet rent money that they are in the “so pro-life they’ve never fostered or adopted any children” crowd? A show of hands please. (Jezebel)
  • Missouri is legit taking a page out of The Handmaid’s Tale, y’all. (The Mary Sue)
  • Six experts quit the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS because they feel No. 45 “simply does not care” about the disease. Obviously, this does not bode well for HIV/AIDS treatment or research to eradicate the disease. (CNN)
  • Earlier this week, Karen Handel won the special election in Georgia. Here’s a reminder why she’s literally the absolute worst and will be no champion for women. She’s also so “pro-life” she’s never fostered or adopted any children. That puts her in good company with all the other “pro-lifers” in government. (Cosmopolitan)
  • Most sexually active teenagers in the U.S. are using contraception! Good job, kids! (Time)
  • If you’re sick of Republicans rigging elections in their favor, the possibility of SCOTUS delivering a rebuke over gerrymandering should excite you just a little bit! (WaPo)