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

World AIDS Day: Fighting the Stigma Is Half the Battle

RibbonThey say words can never hurt you, but in certain parts of the world, there are three letters that can take away everything dear to you: HIV.

Can you imagine having your family disown you? What if doctors refused to treat you, even with basic care? What would it feel like if you were not allowed to pursue any form of education? How about if you had no possibility of a future with a romantic partner?


We will never make strides in preventing HIV transmission until we confront the taboos that surround it.


This is reality for millions of men, women, and children in sub-Saharan Africa who have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. As of 2013, that number was 24.7 million, which accounts for the vast majority of the world’s total reported cases, which by 2014 approached 37 million people, 2.6 million of whom were children. In 2013 alone, 1.5 million sub-Saharan Africans were newly infected. Since the first case was reported in 1981, a certain stigma has always lingered around the disease. Many in the United States refer to it as the “gay disease” or accuse those infected of bestiality. They may say that someone who has been diagnosed should avoid intimacy, believing that a person with HIV is incapable of functional relationships without infecting their partner. In Africa, the implications are even more harsh. Often believed to be a “curse from God,” many regions exile an infected person from their community.

Worse, the stigma does not stop with individuals. It bleeds into the legal, political, and economic arenas as well. This is true worldwide. Some places have prosecuted women for transmitting the virus to their child, or have prosecuted individuals for not disclosing their positive status even if they have reached an undetectable viral load through antiretroviral therapy (ART). The discrimination surrounding a positive diagnosis is cited as the primary hurdle in addressing prevention and care. 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

Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

  • NOW thumbnailAfter abandoning earlier plans to push through a 20-week federal abortion ban because President Obama threatened to veto the hell out of it, Republicans in the House pushed through some bullhooey banning federal funding of abortion yesterday. (Reuters)
  • Unfortunately, many states already have laws in place banning abortion at 20 weeks, and more are sure to follow. (NPR)
  • Weird scenario … You find out you’re pregnant and give birth to a 10-lb. kid an hour later. Ahh! Talk about an American Horror Story! (USA Today)
  • A new health and wellness center specifically for members of the LGBTQ community has opened in Tucson. The very first of its kind in Arizona! (Tucson Weekly)
  • Are “hookup apps” the cause of rising STD rates among gay men? (HuffPo)
  • Hormonal birth control may be increasing women’s risk for a rare brain tumor. (Luckily that risk is small.) (Medical Daily)
  • Black women are making themselves heard on the topic of abortion access. (Think Progress)
  • And with black women being four times more likely to die during childbirth than white women, it’s high time our voices are elevated. (Think Progress)
  • With his birthday just passing, it’s important to remember that Martin Luther King Jr. was a champion of birth control. (HuffPo)
  • An Arizona abortion provider speaks about the changing political landscape and how it’s affected her practice and its patients. (WaPo)
  • Oh gawd. Someone decided to give men a platform (’cause they don’t have enough of those already) to speak out about their “abortion regrets.” In particular, not engaging aggressively enough in reproductive coercion to force the women they got pregnant to continue their unwanted pregnancies. I could seriously vomit reading this tripe. (RH Reality Check)
  • Good news and bad news. Let’s start with the good: If you’re a fetus in Alabama, you have a legal right to a state-paid attorney to “protect your rights”! Even though you can’t, like … communicate your wishes to the attorney, or think coherent thoughts even. It doesn’t matter! You get a lawyer on the state’s dime! Now the bad news: If you’ve had the misfortune of being born already, you don’t have the right to an attorney paid for by the state. Sorry. Your protection ends once you leave the womb, pal. (Jezebel)

Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

  • teacher and studentsApparently there’s a weird subset of people who think teaching kids medically accurate, age-appropriate information about sexuality, reproduction, and sexual health will unleash some sort of rabid sex demon upon these poor kids and they’ll lose every ounce of their innocence! So to prevent that from happening, the folks out in Gilbert are censoring factual information from text books. (AZ Central)
  • The co-creator of the birth control pill thinks all sex will be for fun by 2050. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? (Jezebel)
  • As many as 8 million women haven’t been screened for cervical cancer (via Pap testing) in the past five years! (ABC News)
  • The best thing about this piece on why unplanned births are a bigger calamity than unmarried parents? This quotation: “Empowering people to have children only when they themselves say they want them, and feel prepared to be parents, would do more than any current social program to reduce poverty and improve the life prospects of children.” (The Atlantic)
  • My home state, Ohio, is leading the charge to enact the most extreme abortion bill in the nation. HB 248 would ban abortion as soon as the fetal heartbeat can be detected (around six weeks gestation) and has a fair chance of passing since Ohio’s House and Senate are controlled by Republicans. (Cleveland.com)
  • Americans have short memories when it comes to remembering what life was like pre-Roe v. Wade. From hospitals having to have “septic abortion wards” dedicated to treating women for complications from unsafe, illegal procedures and botched self-abortion attempts, to thousands of women dying from their injuries, it really was a harrowing, scary time in our history. We hold out hope that those days are behind us forever. (Think Progress)
  • India’s government sponsored a “population control” effort, which pays women to undergo sterilization, botched an obscene amount of the surgical procedures, killing 12 women and injuring dozens more. Positively sickening. (NY Times)
  • Anti-gay, anti-birth control, anti-abortion, anti-common sense, intolerant religious fanatic Cathi Herrod continues to wreak absolute havoc upon the political landscape in Arizona. (Media Matters)
  • The longstanding ban on gay men giving blood donations may soon be lifted. The caveat? The men will have to be celibate from homosexual sex for at least a year. (Slate)
  • Despite my own history as a clinic escort, my blood still boils at the sight of “sidewalk counselors” who hatefully troll women seeking reproductive health care. (Cosmopolitan)

STD Awareness: Is Syphilis Making a Comeback?

men syphilisBefore 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, or even death. When we were finally able to zap infections away with drugs like penicillin, it seemed like we’d finally won the battle against this scourge. Whereas syphilis rates were highest before antibiotics became widespread in the 1940s, by 2000 we saw a low of 2.1 cases of syphilis per 100,000. At the dawn of the new millennium, many scientists thought the United States was at the dawn of the complete elimination of syphilis.


Using condoms, regular STD testing, and limiting sex partners are the best ways for sexually active people to stay healthy.


Must all good things come to an end? They shouldn’t have to, but in the case of syphilis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced that syphilis rates are rising, with incidence doubling since 2005. In the United States, there are now 5.3 cases of syphilis per 100,000 people, but that number is a bit misleading because it represents an average across the general population. When you break the population down by age, race or ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, that rate might be much higher or much lower. For example, syphilis rates are actually on the decline among women (at only 0.9 cases per 100,000), but among men it is 9.8 per 100,000. In fact, most new syphilis cases — 91.1 percent of them, to be precise — are in men, most of whom are gay or bisexual.

Syphilis is rising the most dramatically among men in their twenties, especially among men who have sex with men (MSM). While some wonder if syphilis is growing among twenty-somethings because this group didn’t live through the early era of AIDS, when HIV was seen as a death sentence and safer sex practices were more common, it might also be due to the fact that STD rates are higher among young people in general. Continue reading