STD Awareness: When Syphilis Goes North

The bacteria that cause syphilis are shaped like corkscrews. Image: David Cox, CDC

Last month, a “weird” medical case made headlines. An Australian man with unexplained headaches and eye pain got a diagnosis for his mysterious symptoms when his doctors discovered he had syphilis — and the infection had spread to his head. Syphilis had caused both optic nerves to become swollen, triggering pain that worsened whenever he moved his eyes.

It might seem strange that a disease most people associate with below-the-belt symptoms can wreak havoc above the neck, but syphilis is a wanderer that can travel all over the body, sowing chaos wherever it goes.


Syphilis can quickly enter the nervous system and travel to the head, where it can cause blindness, psychiatric problems, and other trouble.


Ocular Syphilis

The bacteria that cause syphilis can be passed from one person to another through contact with a sore, which can appear on or around the mouth, genitals, or anus. Any type of sexual contact, including oral sex, can transmit these bacteria. Sores are painless, contain a highly infectious liquid, and can appear between three weeks to three months after infection. These sores aren’t always visible, which means you can’t tell if someone has syphilis just by looking at them.

Although the bacteria typically land in the mouth, genitals, or anus, they can also be sexually transmitted directly into the eye, causing redness and vision problems. After infection, syphilis sores can appear on the eyelids, tear ducts, and soft tissues around the eyes. Bacteria can also travel to the eye by entering the nervous system and blazing a trail to the optic nerve — no direct contact between the eye and a sore necessary. Continue reading

2019: A Year in Blogging

Nearly three years into the Trump administration, a lot of us are tired. The headlines got more and more draining, culminating in impeachment proceedings at the end of the year. But in response, we’re so fired up that we’re ready to storm the polls next November — and make sure our friends and family do so as well. And 2019 was also a time to be hopeful. In January, a record 102 women walked into the House of Representatives, ready to serve their constituents — making up nearly a quarter of House members, the highest proportion in U.S. history. The Senate saw gains as well, with 25 female senators out of a total of 100. Many of these newcomers made it their mission to fight for the very human and civil rights that are currently under attack.

Outside of politics, we’re still committed to connecting people to the information they need via technology, such as Planned Parenthood’s abortion finder tool, or the Roo app, a sexual-health chatbot that was named by TIME Magazine as one of the year’s best inventions.

Throughout the year, our bloggers were here to shed light on the political happenings and spread awareness about important sexual and reproductive health issues. We asked them to pick their favorite posts of 2019. They’re definitely all worth a second look!

Anne covered the fifth anniversary of the Hobby Lobby decision, which marked the Supreme Court’s ruling that some for-profit corporations could, like human beings, exercise religious beliefs. The Hobby Lobby decision placed religion over science, allowing employers to limit employees’ access to birth control methods otherwise guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act — exploiting a legal loophole to give corporations the right to damage their employees’ health in the name of religion. Five years later, its destructive legacy lives on: The Hobby Lobby decision has since been commandeered to deny birth control, attack the LGBTQ community, make a mess of health care administration, and more.

Matt’s favorite post pointed a spotlight on an important but overshadowed piece of history, the case of People v. Belous, which 50 years ago marked the first time a patient’s constitutional right to abortion was upheld in the courts. The post introduces us to Dr. Leon Belous, a Southern California physician who believed abortion bans were antiquated and barbaric — and was arrested for “conspiracy to commit abortion” after referring a patient to a safe abortion provider in the 1960s. The California Supreme Court vindicated Dr. Belous, setting the stage for Roe v. Wade and the expansion of abortion rights a few years later. As Matt tells us, “I think this case is especially relevant to the borderlands area and the complex role that border towns played in abortion access and the social attitudes toward the procedure.”

Ava wrote about the criminalization of miscarriage. That might not sound possible — the idea that someone could be arrested or imprisoned for having a miscarriage — but plenty of people find themselves in this perplexing and outrageous situation. People who lose their pregnancies may be blamed for these losses if others decide they engaged in risky behaviors, despite the medical fact that most of the time, miscarried or stillborn fetuses die of natural causes, and miscarriage within the first 20 weeks of pregnancy is astonishingly common. These laws may also target people of color, as Black, Latinx, and Native-American people are more likely to experience pregnancy loss than non-Hispanic white people. Simply put, criminalizing pregnancy loss casts pregnant people as vessels rather than people.

Tracey shared her own powerful and personal story about miscarriage. She described that string of four simple words — “I had a miscarriage” — as intimately felt and inconceivable to say. For Tracey, talking about the loss of a baby was almost as hard as losing the baby. She now uses her story to fight stigma, and to encourage other people to do the same. When we are silent around the issue, so many of us suffer in silence, while the reality of the prevalence of miscarriage is distorted for the rest of us. And when people don’t realize how common miscarriage is, they are more likely to blame and demonize those who lose their pregnancies.

Anna celebrated one of 2019’s medical victories, which was announced earlier this year. In her favorite blog post, she introduced readers to the “Berlin patient” and the “London patient,” two people who had HIV before coming down with blood cancers. After receiving bone marrow transplants from donors with genetic “immunity” to HIV, an amazing thing happened: Not only did their cancers go into remission — so did their HIV infections. When this feat was first performed more than a decade ago with the Berlin patient, people were hopeful it could be replicated in future cancer patients — but it took until this year for the success to be duplicated in the London patient. What do these cases mean for the millions of other people living with HIV?


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STD Awareness: Is Withholding HIV Status a Crime?

If your sexual partner had HIV and did not tell you about it, how would you feel? Most of us would feel betrayed, lied to. We might be scared that we’d contracted the virus, too. If we had known, maybe we would have chosen not to have sex, or might have taken different precautions. Perhaps we’d be angry that someone took away our ability to evaluate the risk for ourselves, and instead decided for us that the sex was worth the risk.


Disclosing HIV status can make someone vulnerable to risks, but open communication forms the basis of healthy relationships.


Many people think it should be against the law for someone with HIV to withhold their status from a sexual partner. To do so seems like a violation of someone’s right to make their own decisions about the sex they have, a denial of pertinent information that needs to be factored into one’s decision-making.

Then why are organizations like American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, and the U.S. Department of Justice opposed to these types of laws?

Meet Nick

In June 2008 in Iowa, Nick met Adam on a dating website. They hung out at Nick’s apartment, spent a few hours getting to know each other, and eventually had sex. A few days later, Adam heard through the grapevine that Nick was HIV-positive.

The next month, three armed detectives stormed Nick’s workplace, took him to the local hospital, and ordered nurses to take his blood. Meanwhile, police were searching his house for drugs — not illicit drugs, but lifesaving antiretroviral drugs. Nick was arrested. His crime? Criminal transmission of HIV.

Even though Adam never got HIV. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Can Gene Editing Cure HIV?

For the first time in history, someone with HIV has been treated with cells edited in the lab. It was a bold attempt to try to replicate previous successes in “curing” HIV through bone marrow transplants, but the results were a mixed bag.

Your DNA is like a book, and each sentence is a gene. Imagine a word is misspelled. Sometimes, a misspelling won’t affect your ability to understand the sentence, but other times, it will be so bad that you’ll have trouble figuring out the intended meaning. Think of the difference between “I drive a car” and “I driv a car,” or “I like food” and “I like flod.” You might not be able to tell what that last sentence is even trying to say! Those misspellings are mutations, and sometimes mutations are relatively benign (“I driv a car”), while other times they can cause diseases (“I like flod”).


A mutated version of the CCR5 gene confers near-immunity to HIV — but increases susceptibility to other viruses.


CRISPR, pronounced crisper, is a powerful new technology that can edit genes. By cutting DNA at a specific location and replacing some of the letters in the genetic alphabet, CRISPR can edit genes like you can edit a document using “find and replace.” The hope is that, someday, CRISPR could be used to fight disease by tweaking faulty genes. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Trichomoniasis, the Pear-Shaped, Blood-Sucking, Silent Scourge

What’s shaped like a pear, hangs with a posse of bacteria, and is a silent scourge upon millions of urogenital tracts? I hope you guessed Trichomonas vaginalis, the single-celled parasite that causes trichomoniasis, or trich (pronounced “trick”). Trich is the most common curable sexually transmitted disease out there — currently afflicting around 3.7 million Americans and 156 million Earthlings.


These single-celled creatures pack a punch, but the body fights back.


When trich causes symptoms, sufferers might experience vaginal discharge (which sometimes has a bad odor), penile burning or discharge, spotting, and itching or swelling in the genital area. But around 70 percent of infections have no symptoms at all, making it a mostly “silent” disease. Based on the totality of the evidence, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) doesn’t currently recommend routine screening for trich in people without symptoms.

But it’s the subject of some debate. Since both symptoms and screenings are rare, and the disease isn’t reportable, some health experts worry that trich could be doing a lot of damage right under our noses. An infection during pregnancy could increase risk for preterm labor or low birth weight. It can increase risk for both acquiring and transmitting HIV from or to a partner. Women with trich are more likely to acquire an HIV infection when sexually exposed to the virus — in fact, one study estimated that 6.2 percent of all HIV infections among U.S. women could be attributed to trich. It’s also easier to catch HIV from a man with trich than from a man without trich. Continue reading

National HIV Testing Day: A Time to Empower Yourself and Get Tested

The following post comes to us via Ava Budavari-Glenn, a political communications major and a nonprofit communications minor who is entering her sophomore year at Emerson College. She is a writer whose work focuses mainly on advocacy, and a community organizer who has worked for nonprofit organizations and political campaigns. She is a media and communications intern at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona.

It was the 1980s. All of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, thousands and thousands of people were dying from an illness that had never been seen before. The diagnosis was a death sentence. As soon as you had it, you would die painfully and quickly. The disease was AIDS, caused by a virus called HIV.

In the United States, this disease ravaged the LGBTQ community; gay and bisexual men were the hardest hit. The Reagan administration failed to acknowledge the disease, until Ronald Reagan’s press secretary laughed about it and called it the “gay plague.” Tired of the government’s inaction, the people decided to take matters into their own hands and formed the grassroots organization ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in 1987.


With modern medical treatment, people with HIV can live pretty normal lives.


They protested, made targeted demands, and created poster campaigns. They formed a network of community organizers in cities across the country, and employed radical protest strategies, such as the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which covered the National Mall with names of people who had died from the disease. They focused their targeted efforts on specific politicians, as well as the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They did such an extensive amount of research that the activists essentially became scientists themselves. They were able to lower drug prices and get the FDA to approve experimental drugs for HIV at a quicker pace. They educated, diminished social stigma, and perhaps most important, supported medical advances that reduced AIDS-related deaths.

And finally, in 1996, scientists discovered the treatment that turned HIV from a death sentence to a chronic illness. Finally, after 15 years of tragic deaths, obsessive scientific research, and fiery activism, patients could live long and happy lives with a drug “cocktail” that could suppress the virus. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Searching for an HIV Vaccine

Ever since the dawn of the AIDS era, researchers have worked nonstop to develop an HIV vaccine. In 1984, Margaret Heckler of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services famously (over)promised that a vaccine would be ready for testing in two years. But it’s taken much, much longer. This Saturday, May 18, is HIV Vaccine Awareness Day, a celebration of the patients, community members, and scientists who are hard at work bringing this vaccine into existence.


Only one vaccine — still in the experimental stage — has shown any effectiveness against HIV.


Hiding from the Immune System

Vaccines are inspired by our own bodies’ ability to fight disease. Usually, when our immune system encounters a threat, it takes note of the viral “antigens,” which are like facial features — a button nose, say, or dramatically arched eyebrows — that make it instantly recognizable. It creates “antibodies,” weapons that can target those antigens like guided missiles. Often, the immune system can remember the distinguishing facial features so it’s ready to attack if the enemy ever returns — giving us immunity, possibly for life.

Vaccines take advantage of our natural ability to create these immune memories by exposing our immune systems to antigens without actually exposing us to infectious viruses. Think of it as a “wanted” poster that helps the immune system recognize “bad guys” before it actually sees them on the street, enabling it to attack and destroy them before they cause disease. Continue reading