STD Awareness: The Surprising Sexual Transmission of Non-STDs

What is a sexually transmitted disease, or STD? If someone catches their partner’s cold during sex, is that cold an STD? According to the Office on Women’s Health, an STD is “an infection passed from one person to another person through sexual contact.” Unless the cold was passed through sexual contact, rather than mouth-to-mouth contact, it would not be considered an STD. Others say that, for an infection to be considered an STD, its sexual transmission must make it significantly more common in the population. So, a disease like the common cold would probably be just as common even if people never had sex.


MRSA, meningitis, and the virus that causes pinkeye can be transmitted sexually.


However, there are some infections, such as hepatitis C or bacterial vaginosis, whose status as official STDs is controversial. While researchers argue with one another over where to draw the line between an STD and a non-STD, let’s take a look at some bacteria and viruses that can be transmitted sexually, even though they’re not officially categorized as “STDs.”

MRSA: Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus

MRSA bursting out of a dead blood cell. Image: Frank DeLeo, NIAID

MRSA bursting out of a dead blood cell. Image: Frank DeLeo, NIAID

You’ve probably heard of MRSA, which is pronounced “mersa” and stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — a strain of bacteria that is resistant to every antibiotic in the penicillin family, as well as others. S. aureus, or “staph” for short, is the same bacteria responsible for TSS, or toxic shock syndrome, which has most infamously been associated with the use of highly absorbent tampons. But mostly, staph is a common cause of skin infections, which could be deadly in the pre-antibiotic era, but these days usually don’t raise too many eyebrows.

Unfortunately, with the emergence of MRSA, which is difficult to treat with the usual drugs, we might once again have to worry about minor skin infections blossoming into life-threatening conditions. Additionally, MRSA has found a way to hop from person to person via sexual contact, and sexually transmitted MRSA has been documented in both heterosexual and MSM (men who have sex with men) populations. Untreated, it can lead to a form of gangrene in which tissue blackens as it dies. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Fully Antibiotic-Resistant Gonorrhea Is on the Horizon

shot-in-armWe’ve been anticipating its arrival for years now, but earlier this fall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finally made an announcement: Cases of gonorrhea resistant to the last drugs we use to cure it are emerging.

Over the years, gonorrhea has evolved resistance to every drug we’ve thrown at it — sulfonamides, penicillins, tetracyclines, macrolides, fluoroquinolones, and narrow-spectrum cephalosporins. The last line of defense we have is a one-two punch of a pair of antibiotics: azithromycin and ceftriaxone. By using two drugs, we can delay the inevitable evolution of antibiotic resistance by attacking the bacteria in two vulnerable locations, rather than just one, making it more difficult for the bug to mount a defense and pass on its superior survival skills to subsequent generations.


Prevention is paramount: Stop the spread of antibiotic resistance by practicing safer sex!


Unfortunately, we could only stave off the inevitable for so long. At their conference in September, the CDC announced a cluster of gonorrhea infections that are highly resistant to azithromycin, and that fall prey only to high doses of ceftriaxone. As gonorrhea’s tolerance to ceftriaxone increases, the infection will get more and more difficult to cure.

This cluster of drug-resistant cases was identified in Honolulu in April and May of this year, with five infections showing “dramatic” resistance to azithromycin, as well as reduced vulnerability to ceftriaxone. The good news is that these cases were cured with higher-than-usual doses of antibiotics, but the bad news is that dosages can only climb so high before a drug is no longer considered to be an effective treatment. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Is Chlamydia Bad?

chlamydiaPerhaps your sexual partner has informed you that they have been diagnosed with chlamydia, and you need to get tested, too. Maybe you’ve been notified by the health department that you might have been exposed to chlamydia. And it’s possible that you barely know what chlamydia even is, let alone how much you should be worried about it.

Chlamydia is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) out there, especially among young people. It can be spread by oral, vaginal, and anal sex, particularly when condoms or dental dams were not used correctly or at all. It is often a “silent” infection, meaning that most people with chlamydia don’t experience symptoms — you can’t assume you don’t have it because you feel fine, and you can’t assume your partner doesn’t have it because they look fine. If you’re sexually active, the best way to protect yourself is to know your partner’s STD status and to practice safer sex.


Chlamydia increases risk for HIV, leads to fertility and pregnancy problems, and might increase cancer risk.


The good news about chlamydia is that it’s easy to cure — but first, you need to know you have it! And that’s why it’s important for sexually active people to receive regular STD screening. Left untreated, chlamydia can increase risk of acquiring HIV, can hurt fertility in both males and females, can be harmful during pregnancy, and might even increase risk for a certain type of cancer. So why let it wreak havoc on your body when you could just get tested and take a quick round of antibiotics?

To find out just how seriously you should take chlamydia, let’s answer a few common questions about it.

Can Chlamydia Increase HIV Risk?

Chlamydia does not cause HIV. Chlamydia is caused by a type of bacteria, while HIV is a virus that causes a fatal disease called AIDS. However, many STDs, including chlamydia, can increase risk for an HIV infection, meaning that someone with an untreated chlamydia infection is more likely to be infected with HIV if exposed to the virus. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Gonorrhea’s Ever-Growing Resistance to Antibiotics

gonococci

Gonococci, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea.

Ever since the advent of effective antibacterial therapies less than a century ago, humans with access to these drugs can easily cure gonorrhea. 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 — sulfa drugs and antibiotics not only erased these infections from our bodies, they also erased memories of gonorrhea’s dangers from our collective consciousness.


There are two drugs remaining to treat gonorrhea, and resistance to them is climbing higher as the years march on.


Unfortunately, thanks to their talent for genetic gymnastics, gonococci, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea, have been evolving resistance to every drug we’ve thrown at them — to tetracycline, to penicillin, and more recently to fluoroquinolones. One class of antibiotics remains to treat gonorrhea: cephalosporins. In 2013, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Tom Frieden warned that we could find ourselves in a “post-antibiotic era” – unless we take precautions. And, just two weeks ago, the latest study from the CDC’s Gonococcal Isolate Surveillance Project sounded the alarm that the post-antibiotic era is drawing ever closer, especially when it comes to gonorrhea.

Azithromycin and ceftriaxone, the two drugs that are used in combination to deliver a one-two punch to invading gonococci, are the best antibiotics remaining in our arsenal. Azithromycin is taken by mouth, while ceftriaxone is administered by a shot, and when taken together they team up to target different weak points in gonococci’s armor. Azithromycin interferes with the bacteria’s ability to make proteins, shutting the cells down, while ceftriaxone causes the cell wall to fall apart. However, the gonococci can acquire resistance. For example, in the case of azithromycin, a resistant bacterium can spit out the drug before it has a chance to kill it, or it can change the shape of its protein-making apparatus such that the drug can’t attach to it.  Continue reading

STD Awareness: What Does “Congenital Syphilis” Mean?

Treponema pallidum, the bacteria that causes syphilis

Treponema pallidum, the bacteria that causes syphilis

Congenital syphilis, for centuries a leading cause of infant mortality, is often thought of as an antique affliction, relegated to history books — but it is on the rise again. Between 2012 and 2014, there was a spike in congenital syphilis rates, which increased by 38 percent and are now the highest they’ve been in the United States since 2001. As of 2014, the last year for which we have data, more babies were born with syphilis than with HIV.

The word “congenital” simply means that the baby was born with syphilis after being infected in the womb. When an expecting mother has syphilis, the bacteria that cause the disease can cross the placenta to infect the fetus — and will do so 70 percent of the time. As many as 40 percent of babies infected with syphilis during pregnancy will be stillborn or will die soon after birth. It can also cause rashes, bone deformities, severe anemia, jaundice, blindness, and deafness. Congenital syphilis is especially tragic because it’s almost completely preventable, especially when expecting mothers have access to adequate prenatal care and antibiotics. Penicillin is 98 percent effective in preventing congenital syphilis when it is administered at the appropriate time and at the correct dosage.


More babies are being born with syphilis — but this trend can be reversed with wider access to prenatal care.


Incidence of congenital syphilis is growing across all regions of the country, but rates are highest in the South, followed by the West. Rates have also been increasing across ethnic groups, but, compared to white mothers, congenital syphilis rates are more than 10 times higher among African-American mothers and more than 3 times higher among Latina mothers, illustrating the need to increase access to prenatal care for all expecting mothers — and to ensure that this prenatal care is adequate.

Anyone receiving prenatal care should be screened for syphilis at their first visit, and some pregnant people — including those at increased risk or in areas where congenital syphilis rates are high — should be screened a second time at the beginning of the third trimester and again at delivery. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Which STDs Are Resistant to Antibiotics?

pillsYou’ve probably heard of MRSA, which is pronounced “mersa” and stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — a strain of bacteria that is resistant to methicillin, as well as pretty much every other antibiotic out there. MRSA is an example of evolution by natural selection — what didn’t kill its ancestors made them stronger, spawning a drug-resistant strain.


There are drug-resistant strains of gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, and syphilis.


Evolution is the force behind life’s diversity. Normally, diversity is a good thing — but when it comes to microbes that cause diseases like gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, and syphilis, these organisms’ ability to evolve new defenses against our antimicrobial drugs isn’t good for us.

STDs have plagued us for millennia, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that we finally developed antibiotics, which gave us a powerful tool against many of our most formidable sexually transmitted foes. Suddenly, scourges like gonorrhea and syphilis could be quickly and easily treated with a dose of penicillin.

Problem solved, right? Nope. Enter evolution by natural selection. Continue reading

“Instrument of Torture”: The Dalkon Shield Disaster

This Dalkon Shield is archived at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum at Case Western Reserve University. Photo: Jamie Chung

This Dalkon Shield is archived at Case Western Reserve University. Photo: Jamie Chung

These days, IUDs, or intrauterine devices, have stellar reputations as highly effective contraceptives. Along with implants, IUDs can be more effective than permanent sterilization, and their safety record is fantastic. We also have powerful regulations in place to keep dangerous medical devices off the market, and the FTC can keep manufacturers from making false claims in advertising.

But a previous generation of birth-control users might associate IUDs with dangerous pelvic infections and miscarriages. That’s because a single device, called the Dalkon Shield, almost single-handedly destroyed an entire generation’s trust in IUDs. At the time of its debut, there were dozens of IUDs on the market — but the Dalkon Shield unfairly tainted the reputation of all of them. With no FDA or FTC regulations reining in untested devices or false advertising, women in the late 1960s and early 1970s didn’t enjoy the protections that we take for granted today. And it was actually the Dalkon Shield’s string, which was made with a material and by a method that hasn’t been used in IUDs before or since, that made it dangerous.


Today, IUDs are the most popular form of contraception among physicians wishing to avoid pregnancy.


We’ve known about IUDs for more than a century, and have made them out of ebony, ivory, glass, gold, pewter, wood, wool, and even diamond-studded platinum. These days, IUDs release hormones or spermicidal copper ions, but these older devices were simply objects inserted into the uterus that acted as irritants, possibly enlisting the immune system to kill sperm. They were not as effective as modern-day IUDs.

The Dalkon Shield was invented in 1968, was made primarily of plastic, and had “feet” — four or five on each side — to prevent expulsion. In 1970, after being marketed independently, it was sold to family-owned pharmaceutical giant A.H. Robins Company, of Robitussin fame. It was manufactured in the same factory where ChapStick was produced, and retailed for $4.35.

Dr. Hugh J. Davis, the Dalkon Shield’s primary inventor, claimed that users of his device had a 1.1 percent pregnancy rate — but that number was based on a small, methodologically flawed study conducted over eight months. In fact, the Dalkon Shield had a 5.5 percent failure rate over the course of a year. The fact that the Shield didn’t provide high protection against pregnancy was a huge problem, but its design also dramatically increased risk for pregnancy complications. Of the tens of thousands of users who became pregnant while wearing the Dalkon Shield, 60 percent of them had miscarriages. Continue reading