STD Awareness: Stigma and Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Stigma and disease have always gone hand in hand, with some diseases more stigmatized than others. Over the millennia, people living with diseases ranging from leprosy to AIDS have been burdened by moral judgments, while people with conditions like common colds or Alzheimer’s disease are seen as randomly — and innocently — afflicted.


Even the most “sex-positive” among us might find ourselves inadvertently stigmatizing others.


These days, stigma swirls around the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, arising from the fear and anxiety that has recently gripped the world. As reports of hate crimes against people of Asian descent show, some people are confusing vigilance about protecting public health with excuses to lash out at certain populations. This stigma can also show itself in seemingly benign comments, like apologizing for coughing and promising that it’s “only allergies” — which I have seen happen even in conversations taking place in “virtual spaces” like Zoom or Skype, where disease transmission wouldn’t have been possible. The idea is that a COVID-19 infection is shameful, while allergies are socially acceptable.

Probably no set of diseases is more stigmatized than sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) — despite the fact that they’re also some of the most common infections across the spectrum of humanity. In fact, we’re in the midst of an STD epidemic, with tens of millions of cases every year in this country alone. Gynecologist Jen Gunter writes about how an STD diagnosis, like no other disease save cancer, has the unique power to bring a patient to tears. A common STD like herpes or genital warts can make someone feel like “damaged goods.” But clearly it’s not the virus itself that makes someone “damaged goods” — it’s the way it was transmitted. For proof, look at the way people react to infections caused by genetically related viruses, such as the herpesvirus that causes chickenpox or the strains of HPV that cause warts on someone’s fingers or toes.

Using Stigma to Punish

Even the most “sex-positive” among us might find ourselves inadvertently stigmatizing others when we talk about having a “clean” STD test or make people with herpes the butt of a joke. When we do that, we participate in a system that frames STDs as just punishments for engaging in the “wrong” kinds of sexual activities. Continue reading

STD Awareness: How Do I Tell Someone I Have Herpes? Or HPV? Or HIV?

Image provided by Katie to Vice

Of all the novel ways to jump-start a difficult conversation, presenting someone with a hand-drawn comic about herpes is among the most creative. A couple of weeks ago, Vice shared the story of Katie, a millennial with genital herpes who struggled to find the optimal way to disclose her status to potential partners. In a fit of inspiration, she wrote and illustrated a pamphlet that not only shared her history and status — it also included important stats and other facts about genital herpes, a highly stigmatized and widely misunderstood condition. Her pamphlet has been received well by potential partners, dispelling myths while also lightening the mood during what can be a highly fraught conversation.


Begin your relationship with transparency and respect.


Katie’s struggle is shared by a lot of people with treatable — but incurable — STDs, such as genital herpes, human papillomavirus (HPV), and HIV. (Herpes and HIV stay in the body for life, but 9 out of 10 times HPV will be defeated by the immune system. But sometimes, HPV lingers for years or even life.) Most of us don’t want to disclose too early, when we haven’t yet established trust, but we also might be wary of waiting too long, lest we be accused of dishonesty. And disclosing before it seems like sex is in the cards might seem presumptuous. It can be a fine line to walk.

Whether you design your own comic like Katie did, or try another route, the ability to disclose your STD status to a potential partner is an important communication skill to develop. Healthy relationships are built on a foundation of honesty and respect, and your potential partners need to make their own decisions when it comes to their comfort with possible exposure. To make an informed decision, they must be armed with all the facts — and you can help them! Continue reading

STD Awareness: The Vaginal Microbiome and Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer is caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), which has been nicknamed “the common cold of STDs” — because pretty much every sexually active person will get it at some point. Luckily, that scary stat is poised to change as more people receive the HPV vaccination, which protects against nine major strains of the virus.

HPV jumps easily from person to person, spread by pretty much all types of sexual contact. For most people, the infection clears up within 8 to 13 months, but sometimes the infection develops into a chronic condition, which increases risk for certain cancers — including cervical cancer, but also cancers of the anus, genitals, and throat. Unfortunately, it’s hard to predict if your immune system will vanquish your infection, or if you’ll develop a chronic infection.

Members of the lactobacilli family, keeping vaginas healthy across the globe. Image: Josef Reischig

Luckily, the vagina has some tricks up its sleeve to protect itself from HPV, and some of its best weapons are bacteria. Yep — a healthy vagina isn’t germ-free. To the contrary, it needs lactobacilli and other beneficial microbes to maintain a healthy environment. Bacteria from the Lactobacillus genus produce lactic acid and other chemicals, which help keep dangerous bugs away. Vaginal environments in which Lactobacillus gasseri dominate, for example, are more likely to clear HPV infections. L. crispatus helps trap HIV in a thick mucus, reducing infection risk. Other lactobacilli species secrete chemicals that ward off yeast infections. Sometimes, however, good bacteria lose this turf war, and “bad guys” move in.


The population of microbes that live in your vagina are known collectively as the vaginal microbiome.


University of Arizona researchers in Phoenix performed a “census” of the vaginal microbial communities of 100 premenopausal women. They learned that women who have cervical cancer or precancerous abnormalities have drastically different vaginal microbiomes. Healthy vaginas were generally dominated by lactobacilli, but as cervical health declined, their populations declined, and “bad” bacteria took over. One such bad guy, called Sneathia, was linked to HPV infection, precancer, and cervical cancer.

Which Came First?

Finding a new vaginal “bad guy” was exciting, and Sneathia had previously been linked to other gynecological problems, ranging from bacterial vaginosis to pregnancy complications. But the researchers were looking at a snapshot in time — they didn’t know what came first, the Sneathia or the cervical abnormalities. Were lactobacilli protecting the cervix whereas Sneathia were harming it, or did a chronic HPV infection set the stage for Sneathia to move in and thrive? It’s a real “chicken-and-egg” conundrum. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Winning One War on Cancer

Cancer starts with the uncontrolled division of cells.

The developed world is in the midst of a huge nosedive in genital warts and cervical “precancer” — all thanks to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. This simple shot trains the immune system to defend itself against HPV, a virus that causes genital warts and several types of cancer. Most sexually active people will be exposed to it in their lifetimes — it’s even been nicknamed the “common cold” of sexually transmitted infections.

Gardasil 9 protects against seven strains of HPV that collectively cause 90% of cervical cancers and anal cancers, plus the two HPV strains that are jointly responsible for 90% of genital warts. Vaccination also reduces the frequency of “precancers,” 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.


The HPV vaccine is an anti-cancer vaccine.


The vaccine is safe and effective — and when we say “effective,” we mean it could lead to the eradication of HPV, and with it the cancers it causes. A recent analysis of 66 million vaccine recipients published in The Lancet points to plummeting rates of genital warts and precancer. Among teenage girls, there was an 83% drop in HPV-16 and HPV-18 infections (the two strains of HPV that together cause 70% of cervical cancers) — and cervical precancers were cut in half.

The most dramatic gains were made in countries that offered the HPV vaccine to both boys and girls. Additionally, there were even decreases in the HPV strains that aren’t covered by the vaccine — evidence of “cross-protection,” the phenomenon in which the immune system recognizes close relatives of the viruses it has been trained to attack. Even people who did not receive the vaccine were less likely to catch the virus, simply because their risk was reduced if their partners were vaccinated. Continue reading

From HPV to Cancer to Dry Mouth

Despite what a lot of people might think, oral sex is sex — not “third base,” not “everything but” — carrying with it the potential for both pleasure and disease transmission. That includes oral transmission of human papillomavirus (HPV), which can lead to head-and-neck cancer (aka oral cancer, aka oropharyngeal cancer). Unfortunately, because so many of us have a lax attitude toward it, fewer people take precautions when engaging in oral sex, and are less likely to use condoms or dental dams.


A head-and-neck cancer epidemic is striking younger people, spurred by HPV.


Head-and-neck cancer — which can strike anywhere from the lips to the larynx, and up into the sinuses and nasal cavity — is caused by several risk factors, chief among them oral infection with HPV. When HPV causes head-and-neck cancer, it usually occurs at the base of the tongue, at the back of the throat, in the tonsils, or in the soft palate.

HPV can be spread by most sexual activities, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex, as well as by rubbing genitals together. Although HPV is most famously associated with cervical cancer, it’s actually driving more cases of head-and-neck cancer in the United States.

It’s Oral, Head, and Neck Cancer Awareness Week — a time to learn about how head-and-neck cancer has changed over the years, what consequences it can have for survivors, and how it can be prevented in the first place.

A Changing Patient Profile

In 2017, scientists reported that oral HPV infections with cancer-causing strains of the virus are five times more common in men than in women, and that, likewise, HPV-associated head-and-neck cancers are more likely to strike men. That same year, researchers also reported that, in the United States, head-and-neck cancer among men has surpassed cervical cancer among women. As the years pass by, head-and-neck cancer rates are expected to continue to skew even more heavily toward the male population. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Can Older Adults Receive the HPV Vaccine?

female-patient-with-female-doctorWhen the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines were introduced, a lot of people were excited about protection from a sexually transmitted virus that could cause cancers, including cervical cancer, anal cancer, and head-and-neck cancer. It wasn’t just any old vaccine, it was a shot that could prevent cancer. Cancer!

In fact, a lot of people were disappointed they were too old to take advantage of an anti-cancer vaccine, which was initially approved for people as old as 26. We were given a lot of reasons why people above that age were “too old,” such as the assumption that anyone older than 26 has probably been sexually active for years and would have already contracted the most common strains of HPV.


While getting vaccinated before becoming sexually active is optimal, the HPV vaccine can still benefit people who have already had sex.


But there are compelling reasons to vaccinate people in their late 20s and beyond. In fact, Gardasil 9 was recently approved for people as old as 45. That’s great news for those of us who missed out on the HPV vaccine the first time around. We might never have had any sexual contact, and therefore were never at risk for catching the sexually transmitted virus. We might have found ourselves widowed or divorced after years or decades of monogamy. We might have been sexually active with multiple partners during that time. Whatever our circumstances, those of us who are 45 or younger can now consider HPV vaccination.

HPV and the “Older” Individual

When Cervarix and Gardasil, the first HPV vaccines, were released, they only protected against two cancer-causing HPV strains, HPV-16 and HPV-18, which are responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancers (Gardasil protects against two additional wart-causing HPV strains). A few years ago, Gardasil 9 hit the market, targeting five additional cancer-causing HPV strains — increasing the chances that even sexually active recipients could be protected from HPV strains they hadn’t encountered. Continue reading

STD Awareness: HPV Testing vs. the Pap Test

I love writing about health and medicine, but I hate going to the doctor. I don’t like taking my clothes off for a dermatological exam, I don’t like rolling my sleeve up for a shot, and I don’t like opening my mouth for a dentist. I don’t even like having my blood pressure taken — it gives me the heebie-jeebies, and probably a case of white-coat hypertension too.


For now, pelvic exams are a mainstay — and an important part of cancer prevention.


So when it comes to something even more invasive, like the Pap test to screen for cervical cancer, I’m one of those people pining for a magic wand — a tool that a health care provider can wave over your fully clothed body to detect disease. The Pap test may have transformed a scourge like cervical cancer into one of the most easily detected and treated cancers — and for that I love it — but I still fervently wish for its demise. As long as it’s replaced by something better, of course.

Last month, an article in JAMA inspired a burst of headlines. “HPV test more effective than Pap smear in cancer screening,” said CNN. Or as WebMD put it more succinctly, “HPV Test Beats Pap.” Then, last week, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force updated their guidelines to recommend that patients 30 and older can forgo the Pap test in favor of HPV testing alone. This news might be welcome to anyone who dislikes regular Pap tests and wishes to avoid stirrups and speculums. Unfortunately, HPV tests aren’t the noninvasive “magic wand” so many of us hope for. From the patient’s perspective, the experience of undergoing an HPV test is no different from the experience of undergoing a Pap test. They both require a pelvic exam — the stuff of stirrups and speculums. Continue reading