STD Awareness: Herpes in the Headlines

Two separate stories about herpes have popped up in recent headlines, and the news isn’t good. A “citizen-scientist” injected an untested herpes treatment live on Facebook, sidestepping preliminary studies on safety and effectiveness. Meanwhile, research into a promising herpes vaccine was shut down as the extent of one scientist’s severe ethics violations came to light. Both stories show that there is a strong demand for ways to prevent, treat, and cure herpes — and both are case studies in the wrong way to bring such therapies to market.


Unscrupulous researchers may take advantage of people with stigmatized infections like herpes.


Herpes is a sexually transmitted virus that can cause “outbreaks” of painful genital sores. Afterward, the virus goes dormant in the nerve cells, hiding from the immune system. In some people, the virus can “wake up” to cause temporary flare-ups of symptoms. Given how common this virus is, a preventive shot could help a lot of couples discuss their herpes status without as much fear of judgment and stigma.

While someday an effective herpes vaccine might be developed, recent headlines have been unfortunate examples of scientific experimentation gone horribly wrong.

Citizen-Scientists Doing it Wrong

On February 4, at a biohacking conference, Aaron Traywick took off his pants in front of an audience and injected his thigh with a syringe containing a never-before-tested herpes treatment — a type of gene therapy, a treatment that alters a patient’s DNA by inserting genes into their cells. Frustrated by the testing that pharmaceutical companies must do, and the regulations they’re saddled with, he thought his startup company could leapfrog over these steps and go straight from the lab to human testing, using himself as a guinea pig. In addition to the alleged herpes “cure” that Traywick injected himself with, his company makes a similar herpes vaccine, which they hope will prevent herpes infections in those who don’t have it. Continue reading

What’s in a Name? Frances Oldham Kelsey and the Power of Skepticism

If Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey had been named Mary, Helen, or Dorothy, it’s possible that thousands of babies would have died or been born with debilitating birth defects.

In the mid-1930s, after earning a master’s degree in pharmacology in her native Canada, Frances Oldham wrote to Eugene Geiling, a researcher at the University of Chicago, asking to work in his lab and study for a doctorate. Assuming Frances was a man, Dr. Geiling replied with an offer of a scholarship, addressing the letter to “Mr. Oldham.”


Dr. Kelsey upends the stereotype of the government bureaucrat. She saved lives by being a stickler for details.


Reflecting on the incident in an autobiography, she remembered Dr. Geiling as a “very conservative and old-fashioned” man who “did not hold too much with women as scientists.” His assumption that Frances Oldham was male might have played a role in her scholarship and subsequent education, which prepared her for a career that touched every American.

From an Early Victory in Chicago to a New Career in Washington, D.C.

After moving to Chicago, Frances Oldham earned a doctorate in pharmacology in 1938 and a medical degree in 1950. Along the way, she got married, becoming Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey, and gave birth to two daughters.

Her work in Dr. Geiling’s lab provided early experience in unraveling medical mysteries. In 1937, more than 100 people, including 34 children, died after taking a liquid sulfa drug formulated with an artificial fruit flavor. Dr. Geiling’s team of scientists soon identified the problem: The medicine was composed primarily of antifreeze — along with the active ingredient, coloring, and flavorings. It was sent to market with no testing. Public outrage led to the 1938 passage of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which required manufacturers to provide evidence to the FDA that their drugs were safe. Continue reading

STD Awareness: “Sounding the Alarm” Over Another Antibiotic-Resistant STD

In 2012, the New England Journal of Medicine ominously stated, “It’s time to sound the alarm.” What followed was a description of the evolution of gonorrhea to all antibiotics we have used to treat it, including the last ones we had left. They closed the article with a warning: “The threat of untreatable gonorrhea is emerging rapidly.”

This summer, just five years after that alarm bell was sounded, the New England Journal of Medicine’s prediction came true. Reports of untreatable gonorrhea surfaced, shared in a World Health Organization press release: “Data from 77 countries show that antibiotic resistance is making gonorrhoea — a common sexually-transmitted infection — much harder, and sometimes impossible, to treat.”


An STD most people haven’t even heard of is rapidly evolving antibiotic resistance.


So maybe we should listen when a medical journal talks about the need to “sound the alarm.”

Sexually Transmitted Diseases, the medical journal of the American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association, did just that in an editorial called “Mycoplasma genitalium on the Loose: Time to Sound the Alarm,” which accompanied two studies detailing antibiotic resistance in a little-known STD called mycoplasma genitalium, or MG for short.

“Let me get this straight,” you might be saying. “First you’re telling me there’s an STD called MG, which most people haven’t even heard of, and now you’re telling me I already need to worry about antibiotic resistance?” 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

Tom Price, Secretary Against Health and Human Services?

Protesters at Sen. McCain's Tucson office, December 20, 2016.

Protesters at Sen. McCain’s Tucson office, December 20, 2016.

On December 20, I took part in a demonstration opposing changes to Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA). We gathered outside Sen. John McCain’s Tucson office and told our health care stories. Almost all of us were women, but our stories included issues like the cost of diabetic testing supplies and insulin, the difficulties with employer-provided health plans that don’t allow specialized testing and care outside of their network, the prohibitive cost of medication for chronic conditions like AIDS, and my story of a CT scan (which I could only afford with government assistance) for something unrelated that found my kidney cancer. We were unable to meet with anyone from the office, but the written stories were given to staff and a later meeting was set up.


Tom Price is among those who could do the most harm to the greatest number of Americans.


I begin with this story because Tom Price, Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of health and human services, doesn’t think the government has any place in our health care system. He fits very well among Mr. Trump’s choices to head government departments and agencies, a group of people who don’t believe in the work of their respective departments: Jeff Sessions for attorney general, who was denied a federal judgeship because of his racist comments and judicial overreach as Alabama’s attorney general; Scott Pruitt, who has sued the Environmental Protection Agency 13 times because he opposes regulations and doesn’t believe in climate science, to head that agency; Betsy DeVos for secretary of education, who has no background in education and has spent millions of dollars lobbying to get money away from public schools; and Rex Tillerson, who worked all his life for Exxon, which had a large deal with Russia put on hold by sanctions imposed after Russia annexed Crimea, as secretary of state, with the ability to lift those sanctions. And that’s just a sample.

Since 2009, Price, an orthopedic surgeon, has been a member of the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), a group whose members sign a “declaration of independence” renouncing payments from third-party payers, whether government or private insurers. Their journal has published articles opposing taxes on cigarettes, linking abortion and breast cancer, doubting whether HIV causes AIDS, and opposing mandatory vaccinations. They oppose regulating medical practice even as far as hospital peer reviews, and are fiercely for free-market medicine. Continue reading

Meet Our Candidates: Martín Quezada for State Senator, LD 29

The Arizona primary election will be held on August 30, 2016. Reproductive health care access has been under attack, both nationally and statewide, but Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona has endorsed candidates who have shown strong commitment to reproductive justice. To acquaint you with our endorsed candidates, we are running a series called “Meet Our Candidates.” In order to vote in the primary election, you must register to vote by August 1 — and can even register online. Make your voice heard in 2016!

The West Valley is home to the 29th legislative district, where our endorsed candidate for Arizona Senate has deep roots. Martín Quezada is a staunch defender of reproductive rights, the LGBTQ community, and comprehensive sex education. He has consistently earned our endorsement since 2010, when he first ran for a seat in the House. As a state representative and then a senator, he has both talked the talk and walked the walk, including most recently when he introduced SB 1019, which would have dismantled the “No Promo Homo” statute that effectively blocks Arizona teachers from mentioning LGBTQ people in sex education curricula.


“Since being first elected I have earned the respect of my colleagues, my constituency, even my opposition.”


Compare his record to that of his challenger in August’s Democratic primary election. Lydia Hernández, his Democratic opponent, made her opposition to reproductive rights known in 2013 when she signed the Center for Arizona Policy’s statement denouncing Roe v. Wade. The stark contrast between Sen. Quezada and Ms. Hernández highlights the critical importance of registering to vote and participating in every election — including the primaries!

With no Republican challengers, the race for the LD 29 Senate seat will be decided in August, so if you skip the primary election and wait until November’s general election to cast your ballot, it will have been too late to throw your support behind Sen. Quezada. We need him in the Senate to continue to stand strong against the bad bills introduced by the opposition — and to continue introducing legislation that would make Arizona a healthier and safer place to live.

Sen. Quezada generously took the time to answer our questions on July 1, 2016.

Two years ago, you prevailed over Lydia Hernández in a very tight primary race, and she is challenging you again this year. How did you do a better job representing your constituents over these past two years than Ms. Hernández would have, and how will you continue to do so?

To be clear, I have prevailed over Lydia Hernández in each attempt she has made to challenge me. I knocked her off the ballot in 2010 after discovering nomination petition forgeries, I defeated her in the 2012 appointment process to fulfill the LD 13 House vacancy. I defeated her in the 2012 Primary, finishing in first place in the House race, and I defeated her in 2014 as you mentioned above.

Since being first elected I have earned the respect of my colleagues, my constituency, even my opposition in the political world. I have remained true to the values of the people of LD 29 and been a consistent voice for the issues most important to them at the Capitol. Hernández has gone further down a path of being an outsider and an agitator and has grown more and more extreme in her views and has openly and proudly betrayed the values of our constituency by endorsing such extreme politicians as Gov. Doug Ducey and Secretary of State [Michele] Reagan. Continue reading

Telling the Truth About Abortion Politics

Sens. Yee and Barto asked. We answered. It’s Our Turn to share the truth behind abortion politics. We have submitted the following op-ed to the Arizona Republic, but they have not (yet?) published it.

Thank You PP croppedAs a medical professional, I am dismayed at the recent “Our Turn” published in the Arizona Republic titled, “Make doctors tell the truth on abortion drug.” I would like to do just that — tell the truth and correct the record, because the opinion by legislators Barto and Yee was laden with revisionist history, misstatements of legal fact, and most important, non-medical junk science.

Doctors practice up-to-date, evidence-based medicine. I appreciate lawmakers repealing their intrusive foray into the practice of medicine, SB 1324. This law attempted to mandate how doctors dispense abortion medication according to an outdated, 16-year-old protocol contained in the original drug label. SB 1324 was an attempt to re-start a legal case that Arizona was losing. Despite the FDA’s update of the drug label to reflect current medical practice, policymakers and the governor stubbornly insisted on enacting SB 1324. Why, I cannot imagine. The repeal of this legislation was certainly welcome.

Real doctors reject junk science. More disturbing than the FDA label issue is Sens. Yee and Barto’s assertion that “at least 170 healthy babies have been born when medication abortions were reversed.” There is no scientific support for this assertion, just as there is no peer-reviewed medical evidence for the whole notion of “abortion reversal.” A handful of doctors with a moral agenda have attempted to use progesterone to “stop” a medication abortion. However, there is nothing in the literature to justify this practice, save for one report of six informal clinical anecdotes. No significant sample size, no control group, no oversight, no peer review. Regardless, last year these same legislators passed SB 1318, violating physicians’ and patients’ constitutional rights by forcing physicians to inform their patients that it is possible to reverse a medication abortion, which is untrue. Continue reading