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

Sexual Health Made Simple(-Minded)

OK, here’s all you need to know if you want to be completely safe. Don’t engage in sex with anyone (or anything) except yourself. Come to think of it, do you really know where yourself has been lately? Better be safe than sorry.


Who would you rather believe? Movie stars or scientists and doctors?


Admittedly, this is a tad extreme. Fortunately, all you need do is go on Facebook or Google and you’ll find a plethora of cool-sounding, stylish, and evidence-based strategies to keep you safe. Well, maybe not the latter. But who needs evidence? Who’s got time to read dry, long-winded articles written by doctors and scientists about prissy, painstaking experiments taking years or decades when you could be out having fun? Besides, if something is on Facebook or Google then it must be true, right?

Condom Alternatives for Guys Who Hate Condoms

Need a sexual health tip fast? Just pull one off the ’net. Oh, here’s one for you guys who don’t like using condoms. Not to worry. There’s a little adhesive sticker called a Jiftip that you merely affix to the tip of your penis before sex. “Nothing gets in or out until you remove” it, the company claims on its website, which means that just before climax you must abruptly pull out of your partner as gracefully as possible under the circumstances so you can ejaculate wherever.

In all fairness to the company, which simply wishes to offer an alternative product for people who don’t like condoms, their website warns against using it to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.

Which does bring up a HUGE question: So why use it? Their answer? First, it’s cheap — only $6 a pack. So hey, what’s stopping you? Maybe, despite all biological facts to the contrary, the product just might work for you. “How can anyone know — until they try?” Best of all, “Jiftip has no side-effects” … that is, aside from getting pregnant or catching an STD. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Do IUDs and Implants Prevent STDs?

Highly effective birth control methods, namely intrauterine devices (IUDs) and implants, have received a lot of well-deserved attention in recent years. They are as effective at preventing pregnancy as permanent sterilization, but can be stopped at any time, and can last from three to 12 years. They are the contraceptive of choice for female family-planning providers, who should know a thing or two about choosing an optimal birth control method. They are fantastic options for teenagers and others hoping to delay pregnancy for at least a few years. And the best news is that, for now anyway, these pricey birth control methods are still available at no cost to Americans covered by Medicaid or health insurance.


For the best protection against unintended pregnancy and STDs, combine condoms with IUDs or contraceptive implants.


If IUDs and implants prevented sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), they would pretty much be perfect — but, alas, like most forms of birth control, they don’t protect you from viruses, bacteria, and other bugs that can be passed from person to person through sex. To reduce their risk for STD exposure, sexually active people must employ other strategies, including (1) being in a mutually monogamous relationship with a person who does not have STDs; (2) being vaccinated before becoming sexually active to receive protection from hepatitis B virus and human papillomavirus (HPV), two sexually transmitted viruses; and, last but definitely not least, (3) condoms, condoms, condoms!

A study published this month looked at college students using IUDs and implants and found that most of them didn’t use condoms the last time they had vaginal sex — 57 percent of women who were not using IUDs or implants used a condom, compared to only 24 percent of women who were using IUDs or implants. That’s not too surprising if pregnancy prevention were the only concern, but condoms are an important addition for anyone seeking to reduce their STD risk. Continue reading

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: 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

Contraception Then and Now

When it comes to contraception, one thing is for sure: We’ve come a long way! And while the future might have even better things in store, like reversible male birth control, superior condoms, or remote-controlled implants, a look into the past reveals that modern contraceptors have a bevy of fantastic options to choose from. Unlike couples who had to forgo contraception or obtain birth control from the black market, nowadays Americans wishing to prevent or postpone pregnancy can select from a variety of legal, effective, and increasingly accessible family-planning methods.


While the history of birth control is fascinating, today’s contraception is the very best.


Let’s look at some old-fashioned birth-control methods and see how they stack up to their modern-day counterparts.

Linen and Guts vs. Latex and Polyurethane Condoms

Most people think of female condoms as new inventions, but the first condom recorded in history was made out of a goat’s bladder and inserted into the vagina — way back in 3000 BC. Ancient civilizations, from the Romans to the Egyptians to the Japanese, made penile sheaths and caps with a variety of materials, including linen, leather, lubricated silk paper, intestines, and tortoise shells. Linen and intestines remained popular through the Renaissance era.

A condom, with user manual, 1813. Photo: Matthias Kabel

Charles Goodyear might be most famous for tires, but his discoveries in vulcanizing rubber also led to the development of rubber condoms in the mid-1800s. Unfortunately, the Comstock Act of 1873 outlawed the manufacture and sale of contraception, and condoms were driven into a shadow economy. In the 1880s, New Yorkers might have been lucky to find black-market condoms made from surplus animal intestines, which were manufactured by Julius Schmid, a German immigrant who otherwise specialized in sausage casings — before his business was shut down by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Condoms weren’t legal in the United States until the Crane ruling of 1918, just in time for the 1920 invention of latex, a form of rubber that was much stronger and more elastic — and with a shelf life of five years vs. rubber’s three months. By the 1920s, Schmid was once again on top of the condom game, peddling brands like Sheik, Ramses, and Sphinx.

Condoms made out of intestines are still on the market, sold as lambskin or “natural” condoms. However, they are not recommended for STD protection: Just as intestines need to allow nutrients to enter the body from digesting food, so too are viruses able to pass through condoms made from intestines. (Sperm, on the other hand, are thought to be too big.) These days, latex is the gold-standard material for condoms, while polyurethane can be used by people with latex allergies. Condoms constructed with these modern materials protect users from unintended pregnancy as well as many sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV and chlamydia. Continue reading

Square Pegs, Round Holes: Building Trans-Inclusive Health Care

transgenderFor the first time in history, trans persons are being recognized in the mainstream and their identities are being embraced like never before. Laverne Cox’s cover story for Time and Amazon Prime’s original series Transparent winning four Emmys are examples of this recognition.

Kinda.


Today is National Transgender HIV Testing Day.


Truth is, the trans persons in the media are not representative of the norm. The findings of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey — a survey that collected responses from more than 6,000 transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals — give a clearer picture, and it’s not pretty. The authors of this study found trans persons faced adversity in almost all aspects of life, from experiencing double the rate of unemployment to suffering through a high rate of violent attacks (26 percent and 10 percent of the respondents reported being physically and sexually assaulted, respectively) because of their gender identities. Among all these results, I found one to be particularly unsettling:

“Respondents reported over four times the national average of HIV infection, with rates higher among transgender people of color.”

To me, a person born after the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s and privileged with a world that now has readily accessible condoms and HIV prevention medication (i.e., Truvada), HIV seemed like a relic of the past. Examining the amount of new HIV infections in the cisgender population (0.4 percent for females and 1.2 percent for males), this is an easy assumption to make. I was wrong. Other studies echoed the large disparities of HIV incidence and prevalence in trans persons. One systematic review uncovered four studies that found that 24.8 to 30.6 percent of male-to-female (MTF) transgender persons tested positive for HIV. Another study — conducted in Ontario, Canada — sampled 433 trans persons and found 7 percent of female-to-male (FTM) transgender persons and 19 percent of MTF persons had a high-risk sexual experience in the last year. Yet another found that 35 percent of MTF persons (and 2 percent of FTM persons) had HIV, and again, persons of color — in this case, African-American identified individuals — were at a greater risk. Indeed, in this study, African-American trans persons (FTM and MTF) were approximately three to 12 times more likely to have HIV. Given these data, the cynic in me questions, “Is anyone even trying to prevent HIV in trans persons?” Continue reading