STD Awareness: Is There a Vaccine for Syphilis?

Before antibiotics, syphilis was the most feared sexually transmitted disease (STD) out there. It was easy to get, quack cures were ineffective and often unpleasant, and it could lead to blindness, disfigurement, dementia, and even death. Syphilis rates were highest during World War II, and plummeted when penicillin became widely available later in the 1940s. By 2000, syphilis rates hit an all-time low, and many scientists thought the United States was at the dawn of the complete elimination of syphilis.

What a difference an antibiotic makes. Image: CDC

Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that syphilis wasn’t ready to go out without a fight. Since 2000, syphilis rates have nearly quadrupled, climbing from 2.1 to 7.5 per 100,000 people by 2015 — the highest they have been since 1994. If you look at the above graph, you might think syphilis rates have been pretty stable over the past 20 years — but if you zoom in, the fact that we’re in the midst of an epidemic becomes more clear.

After hitting an all-time low in 2000, syphilis rates have been increasing nearly every year since.

The epidemic is disproportionately affecting men who have sex with men (MSM), with Arizona seeing a higher-than-average syphilis rate in this group. Additionally, syphilis rates are climbing among women, who have seen a 27 percent bump between 2014 and 2015. And, since women can carry both syphilis and pregnancies, a rise in syphilis in this population also means a rise congenital syphilis (the transmission of syphilis from mother to fetus), which causes miscarriages, stillbirths, preterm births, neonatal death, and birth defects. Ocular syphilis — that is, syphilis infections that spread to the eyes and can lead to blindness — is also on the rise.

Men, women, babies — no one is immune to the grasp of syphilis. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Are Condoms Really Necessary?

condoms in packetsCondoms are one of the best ways for sexually active people to avoid sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), but many worry that people are becoming more lax about protecting themselves. There are all kinds of myths swirling around about condoms — such as that they aren’t effective or that they kill the mood. And, thanks to anti-HIV medications, some people no longer see condom use as a matter of life or death.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced that 2014 saw record highs in chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhea, which is a stark reminder that condoms protect against more than just HIV. So, even if you’re using medications to protect yourself from HIV, remember that syphilis is making a comeback, and can cause serious damage or even death when untreated, and that gonorrhea is rapidly evolving resistance to the last good drugs we have to treat it. Condoms are just as relevant as ever!

HIV

In 2014, the CDC announced it would start using the term “condomless sex” instead of “unprotected sex” to recognize that people could engage in condom-free sex, but still protect themselves from HIV by using Truvada, or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). Truvada is the first drug approved by the FDA to prevent HIV, and it can be taken by HIV-negative individuals to help their body ward off the virus before an infection can establish itself. The pill must be taken daily — using it inconsistently reduces its effectiveness. 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