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

STD Awareness: Human Papillomavirus Grabs Headlines

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the most common STD out there — a fact made even more aggravating by the absence of a good test for it. Sure, Pap testing can detect cellular abnormalities triggered by HPV, and the HPV DNA test can find evidence of infection. But it’s not a definitive test — a negative Pap/HPV DNA co-test doesn’t rule out the possibility that you carry the virus. Ditto for the anal Pap test — which most people haven’t even heard of anyway!


There are more compelling reasons to vaccinate boys against HPV — and not-as-compelling reasons to think Gardasil could protect against skin cancer.


The lack of a good diagnostic test makes the HPV vaccine an even more valuable asset. If we can drive the virus to extinction through aggressive vaccination campaigns, our limited diagnostic abilities become a moot point. And recent headlines have given us reasons to love the HPV vaccine even more.

HPV and Men

Many people think of HPV as a women’s issue, as the virus causes cervical cancer, and for a long time, boys and men weren’t even targeted for vaccination. But HPV is everyone’s issue — genital warts don’t care what gender you are, and cancer-causing strains of HPV cause most cases of anal cancer, penile cancer, and oropharyngeal cancer. Recently, a large, first-of-its kind study published in JAMA Oncology analyzed penile swabs provided by 1,757 men to figure out how common HPV is in this population. (While there is no FDA-approved test for diagnosing male patients with HPV, scientists can still collect swabs for research purposes.)

The results: 45.2 percent of American men ages 18 to 59 carry genital HPV — for a total of nearly 35 million adult males. HPV carriers can transmit the virus to sexual partners through vaginal, anal, or oral sex — or even just rubbing genitals together, as the virus is spread by skin-to-skin contact. Furthermore, a quarter of men are infected with cancer-causing strains of HPV. And, while the female population sees a peak in HPV infections in their early 20s, men’s HPV prevalence increases with age. While 28.9 percent of men 18 to 22 years of age carried HPV, 50.8 percent of them carried it by the time they were 28 to 32 years of age, and 59.7 percent of 58- and 59-year-olds were carriers. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Shaving, Waxing, and Trimming, Oh My!

Last month, the connection between body-hair removal and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) once again gave rise to a flurry of headlines. Media had previously reported on “studies” purporting that the popularity of waxing is leading to the extinction of pubic lice, or that shaving increases risk for a little-known STD called molluscum contagiosum.

The idea that waxing one’s nether regions is tantamount to habitat destruction for the lowly pubic louse makes a certain amount of sense. But was it really true that waxing was leading to diminished pubic-lice populations, or just a case of the media blowing an obscure medical factoid out of proportion? Ditto with the claims about molluscum contagiosum — though they were based on perfectly plausible premises, having to do with shaving causing microscopic skin injuries that create openings for infectious viruses, the average reader might not have been able to rely on a journalist’s ability to translate a scientific article from “medical-ese” into an easy-to-understand, yet fully nuanced, magazine blurb.


The case isn’t closed on the link between body-hair removal and STDs.


As we’ve written before, the reporting in the popular media left out important details — such as the fact that these weren’t studies at all, but rather educated guesses based on observations, published as letters to the editor. No one was comparing pubic lice infestations or sexually transmitted infections between groups of people with and without pubic hair.

Until now.

The medical journal Sexually Transmitted Infections recently published a study based on a survey of 7,470 American adults who had had at least one sexual partner. The salient point the media pounced on was that removing pubic hair increases STD risk by 400 percent: NPR screamed that “Going Bare Down There May Boost The Risk Of STDs,” Time proclaimed “Grooming is linked to a higher risk of STIs,” and The Guardian spooked readers with a rather tasteless piece about “the health dangers of bikini waxing.” Even Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update got in on the action, albeit with a crude joke about old men’s genitals.

But let’s leave headlines behind and delve right into the medical journal itself. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

For the past decade, human papillomavirus, better known as HPV, has been a pretty consistent headline grabber. Formerly a little-discussed virus, HPV was catapulted into the public consciousness in 2006, when suddenly people were all aflutter about this cancer-causing sexually transmitted pathogen, as well as Gardasil, the three-shot vaccination series the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was recommending to preteen girls as protection from cervical cancer.


Kids 14 and younger develop such a strong immune response to Gardasil that they only need two doses — not three!


Dialogue has evolved since then, as people have recognized that HPV causes more than just cervical cancer — including anal cancer, head-and-neck cancer, and penile cancer — meaning that all children should be vaccinated, not just girls. And fears that the vaccine will “encourage” promiscuity still abound, despite thorough scientific debunking. In fact, many experts believe that our skittishness surrounding sexuality — especially when it comes to teenagers — causes parents to turn a blind eye to the importance of vaccinating their children against HPV. (Unvaccinated children might not appreciate their parents’ choice, if, say, a few years down the line they find a smattering of genital warts below their belts.)

Ongoing scientific research into Gardasil and the virus it protects against provides continuous fodder for journalists covering medical and scientific advances. Here are just a few of the most recent headlines featuring HPV:

Continue reading

STD Awareness: Which STDs Are Vaccine Preventable?

scientistWouldn’t it be great if we could wipe sexually transmitted diseases off the face of the earth? If vaccinologists have a big “to-do” list out there, probably every single infectious disease is on it, including every STD. But some STDs have a higher priority than others, while other pathogens, unfortunately, don’t yield to our efforts quite as easily as other vaccine-preventable diseases.

Celebrate National Immunization Awareness Month by taking a look at a vaccinologist’s hypothetical “to-do” list below. While we already have a couple of STDs checked off that list, there is still more progress to be made!

check boxHuman papillomavirus: Gardasil, the most widely used HPV vaccine, introduced a new-and-improved version earlier this year. Gardasil 9 protects against seven strains of HPV that collectively cause 90 percent of cervical cancers and anal cancers, plus the two HPV strains that are jointly responsible for 90 percent of genital warts. Not only that, but vaccination against HPV will also reduce the frequency of “pre-cancers,” which are cellular abnormalities that can be treated before progressing into full-fledged cancer — meaning less time, money, and anxiety spent dealing with follow-up procedures and treatments. In fact, Australia is already seeing a huge nosedive in genital warts and pre-cancers — all thanks to their sky-high HPV vaccination rates.

check boxHepatitis A and B: Hepatitis, a disease of the liver, can be caused by several types of viruses, including hepatitis A virus and hepatitis B virus. Both can be transmitted sexually, but thanks to the vaccines, you can ask to be protected against them using a combination vaccine, meaning you’ll only have to get three shots over a six-month period rather than the five shots you’d receive if you were vaccinated for the two viruses separately. Continue reading

Teen Talk: Gardasil, a Shot of Prevention

pink vaccine cartoonOne of my least-favorite medical memories must have happened when I was 5 years old, give or take. All I remember is that I was very small, surrounded on all sides by my mom, my pediatrician, and a nurse, and shrinking into a corner as the nurse came at me with a needle. I was squirming and protesting and cringing, but she grabbed my arm and pierced it with a syringe, quick as lightning. Before I could howl in protest, it was over.


Arm yourself against genital warts with Gardasil!


But here’s the thing: It hurt. A lot. And for days afterward, I went about my business feeling as if I had been punched in the arm. When I complained to my mom about how sore I was, she said that my muscles were completely tensed up, and shots hurt more when your muscles are tense. That fact only compounded my annoyance — why had that mean old nurse pricked me at the height of my freakout? If someone had just explained it to me, maybe I could have calmed down enough to relax my muscles and minimize the pain.

That incident made a mark on me, and once I hit adulthood I saw no reason to continue inviting the painful sting of immunization if I didn’t have to. It wasn’t until vaccine-preventable diseases like pertussis and measles started making a comeback that I had to admit to myself that avoiding immunization wasn’t anything to be proud of, and I started getting all my booster shots and yearly influenza vaccinations. 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