STD Awareness: Is Mouthwash a Match for Gonorrhea’s Superpowers?

Since the 1930s, we’ve enjoyed around eight decades of easily cured gonorrhea — at least in places with easy access to antibiotics — but experts fear those days are numbered. In the past year or so, cases of untreatable gonorrhea have occasionally made headlines.

Thanks to the powers of evolution, some bacteria have acquired the multiple genes necessary to withstand the onslaught of the pills and shots administered by doctors. Gonococci, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea, are starting to win this “arms race” with humans, whose antibiotic arsenals are losing effectiveness. And with gonorrhea on the rise, gonococci may be evolving at an ever-quickening clip.


In 1879, Listerine claimed to cure gonorrhea. Today, scientists are finally testing that claim. We await the results.


Oral Gonorrhea: The Silent Scourge

Many experts believe oral gonorrhea is a key driver of antibiotic resistance. These infections usually don’t cause symptoms, and without symptoms people usually don’t seek treatment. Without treatment, gonococci can hang out in a throat for up to three months.

After transmission by oral sex — and possibly even by kissing  — gonococci can set up camp in the throat, which is an ideal environment for acquiring antibiotic resistance. They might not be causing symptoms, but they’re not sitting there twiddling their thumbs, either. If there’s one thing gonococci love to do, it’s collecting genes like some of us collect trading cards, and the throat is a gathering place for closely related bacteria species that hand out antibiotic-resistance genes for their expanding collections.

Gonococci can easily scavenge DNA from their surroundings — say, from a dead bacterium — and patch long segments of these genes into their own DNA, creating genetic hybrids between themselves and other organisms. Last month, scientists from Indiana University caught this phenomenon on video for the first time.

Continue reading

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: The Curious Case of Chancroid

Haemophilus ducreyi arrange themselves in parallel rows, which researchers have called “railroad tracks,” “schools of fish,” and “fingerprints.” Image: Mike Miller, CDC

Earlier this year, I asked a room full of scientists and medical professionals to raise their hands if they’d ever heard of chancroid. Everyone sat there, motionless, confused by the odd syllables I had uttered — shan kroyd. If you’ve never heard of chancroid, you’re not alone.

Chancroid is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) brought to you by Haemophilus ducreyi, a type of bacteria that can pass through microscopic tears in the skin during sexual contact. When one partner is infected, there is a 1 in 3 chance the other will become infected. An infection can cause painful sores and swollen lymph nodes, most often in the genital region. About half of people with chancroid infections will experience “buboes,” or swollen lymph glands that might rupture. Before it could be cured with antibiotics, a persistent infection could cause permanent skin damage.


Humanity can make chancroid the first STD to go extinct.


One reason you probably haven’t heard of chancroid is that, in the developed world at least, it has mostly disappeared. In fact, researchers believe chancroid can be completely wiped off the planet — which would make it the first STD ever to be forced into extinction. How amazing would that be?

Chancroid has been hopping from loin to loin since at least the days of the ancient Greeks, and was common until the 20th century, when rates began to decline. Thanks to antibiotics, U.S. chancroid rates decreased 80-fold between 1947 and 1997, all but vanishing by the late 1950s. It was virtually unheard of until there was another spike in the 1980s, correlating with the crack epidemic. But, since 1987, cases have been steadily declining. Continue reading

Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

  • Let’s start this week’s rundown on a ridiculous note. Apparently a bunch of weirdos think a sticker on the head of a penis is an alternative to a condom. #FacePalm (Slate)
  • 45’s administration defunding evidence-based sex ed in favor of abstinence-only propaganda will not make America great. (Tucson Weekly)
  • Rep. Ben Ray Luján — the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — became the latest to suggest that 2018 Democratic candidates don’t have to be pro-choice. While he didn’t clarify this comment, what I’m hoping he means is that Democratic candidates can be personally pro-life, as long as they are active in protecting the LEGAL RIGHT women have to abortions. If this isn’t what he meant, he’s sadly misguided and has no business representing or leading the party. (NY Mag)
  • More on that? This Atlantic article about the Democratic Party’s “abortion dilemma” is also concerning. It worries me that we continue to hear about “pro-life” Democrats and whether or not they should be “welcomed” by members the party and supported when they run for office. First of all, pro-choice people are also pro-life. We value the lives of all people. We value and respect the choices of women who wish to bring life into the world and women who do not. I think it’s perfectly acceptable for a Democrat not to embrace abortion personally. What is not acceptable is to legislate in a manner that disempowers women from making choices regarding their wombs. It would be a GRAVE mistake for Democrats to support candidates who would cruelly force women to endure unwanted pregnancies. Reproductive rights are human rights. This should not represent a “dilemma” to a party that purports to care about human rights. (The Atlantic)
  • Virginia, why is there a need for you to go down the forced vaginal ultrasound path other than to humiliate and violate women? (Rewire)
  • Texas, why is it easier to buy a gun that has the potential to kill scores of people than to access abortion in your state? What a shame we live in a society that so clearly values punishing women for their sexual behavior over protecting living, breathing people. (Houston Chronicle)
  • Other wretched news out of Texas? They’re looking to restrict insurers from covering abortion. What other safe, legal medical procedure would they dare try this on? Can’t think of any? Me neither. (Texas Tribune)
  • Renee Bracey Sherman wrote a great piece for The New York Times about the concern anti-abortion activists claim to have for “black lives” terminated by abortion, but not via police killings. She states, “Far too often, compassion for black lives doesn’t extend beyond the womb or to the black women carrying that womb.” (NYT)
  • Jessica Valenti of The Guardian reminds us all that pregnancy has the potential to be lethal and that no one should be forced to give birth against their will. (The Guardian)
  • A nonprofit in the U.S. is helping throw women in El Salvador in prison for having abortions. Disgusting. (Slate)

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: 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