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: 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

STD Awareness: The Herpes Virus and Herpes Medications

herpes medicationOne of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) is herpes, which affects an estimated 1 out of 6 Americans between the ages of 14 and 49. Herpes is caused by a virus, and one reason that it’s so widespread is that the herpesvirus is ancient. Prehistoric, even — dinosaurs are thought to have been infected by herpesviruses! The Herpesviridae family is huge, with at least 100 members infecting mammals, birds, reptiles, bony fish, amphibians, and oysters.


Herpes drugs from the acyclovir family physically block herpes DNA from replicating — which is pretty amazing!


Humans can suffer from both oral herpes and genital herpes, which are caused by two types of the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1 and HSV-2). Recent genetic analysis reveals that the virus that causes cold sores, HSV-1, has been evolving with us since before we were Homo sapiens, diverging from the viruses that infected our common ancestors 6 million years ago. Interestingly, we didn’t acquire HSV-2 — which mostly causes genital herpes — until our Homo erectus ancestors caught it from early chimpanzees 1.6 million years ago, well before the emergence of modern Homo sapiens around 200,000 years ago.

Most people know what the virus doesgenital herpes can involve blisters, pain, and itching — but most people don’t know how the virus works. Luckily, scientists have uncovered a lot of the virus’ secrets — which has allowed them to develop some pretty effective drugs that we can use to foil herpes’ plans. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Do Sexually Transmitted Diseases Increase HIV Risk?

virion HIVYou might have heard that having an STD like syphilis, herpes, or gonorrhea can make it easier to catch HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. But have you ever wondered if this was true? Maybe it’s just a simple correlation — for example, someone who doesn’t practice safer sex would be more likely to catch HIV along with any other STD. That doesn’t mean that one causes the other, does it?


Common STDs like herpes and trichomoniasis can increase HIV risk.


But it’s not a mere correlation. If you take one person with an STD and one person without an STD and expose them both to HIV through sexual contact, the person with the STD will be at least two to five times more likely to become infected with HIV. Why is that? First, many STDs can make you more susceptible to an HIV infection. Second, the immune response triggered by many sexually transmitted infections can summon the types of immune cells that HIV targets.

Furthermore, if a person with HIV is co-infected with another STD, he or she is more likely to transmit HIV to a partner. In other words, STDs can make a person with HIV more infectious. HIV is more likely to appear in their genital secretions, making it easier to transmit HIV through sexual activity. Continue reading

My Partner Just Told Me They Have Herpes. I Don’t. Now What?

handsHas your new partner just informed you that he or she has herpes? People have many reactions when hearing this kind of news — and, depending on how informed you are about herpes, your reaction might be tinged with panic or fear. If that’s your instinct, try to keep those feelings in check: Your partner might be feeling very vulnerable, so it’s best not to react with shunning or shaming.


More than 80 percent of people with genital herpes are unaware of their infections.


By being open about his or her STD status, your partner has demonstrated a sense of responsibility toward your sexual health and a respect for your ability to make informed decisions. It’s possible that your partner was not given this same consideration by the person from whom he or she contracted herpes — some people with genital herpes choose not to disclose their status, while most don’t even know they carry the virus in the first place.

Herpes is more widespread than most of us realize. It can be caused by one of two strains of the herpes simplex virus: HSV-1 or HSV-2. While HSV-1 is more commonly associated with cold sores and HSV-2 is more commonly associated with genital herpes, either virus can infect the genital area. One estimate states that 1 out of 5 American females and 1 out of 9 American males between 14 to 49 years of age have a genital HSV-2 infection.

Now that you know your partner has herpes, you might have some questions. How easy is it to transmit genital herpes from one partner to another? What can you do to minimize your chances of catching the virus? And, while it is certainly stigmatized in our culture, is herpes something to fear? Continue reading

STD Awareness: Genital Herpes

Herpes viruses inside a cell. Image: CDC

In the most recent Planned Parenthood annual report, a Tucson mother describes her daughter’s mysterious ailment, which stumped doctors at the hospital. Her symptoms included an itchy, tender genital area with painful lesions — but the physicians who “pored over her poor vulva” decided it was nothing to worry about and sent her home. A few days later, though, she called her mother in the middle of the night, sobbing, her condition now worse. “There were lesions, pustules, and the area was deep red,” her mother wrote. So this time, she called the experts: Planned Parenthood.


If you have symptoms, get checked out! An accurate diagnosis is more likely when symptoms are present.


The condition wasn’t nothing — it was genital herpes, and the mother praised Planned Parenthood for “spot[ting] something other pros missed.” Indeed, sexual and reproductive health is what we do — day in and day out! Whether you’re young or old, sexually active or celibate, insured or paying out of pocket or eligible for sliding-scale fees, we’re here to share our expertise with you.

The word “herpes” comes from an ancient Greek word that means “to creep,” after the “creeping” nature of skin lesions that might spread across areas of one’s body. We now know that the herpes simplex virus can “creep” up and down nerves, retreating to nerve cells to go dormant and returning back to the surface of the skin to cause symptoms or “shed” new virus particles. (Like a cat sheds fur, so too can people shed viruses.) Continue reading

Let’s Talk Contraception: New Contraceptives and HIV Protection

This ring, currently under development, can be inserted into the vagina to prevent both pregnancy and HIV transmission. Image: USAID

This ring, currently under development, might reduce risk for both pregnancy and HIV transmission. Image: USAID

The World Health Organization estimated that in 2012 there were 35.3 million people worldwide living with HIV. A whopping 69 percent of them live in sub-Saharan Africa. Save the Children reports that 2 out of 5 children born in developing countries are the result of unintended pregnancies.

Condoms remain the gold standard for protection against HIV transmission. But not all women are able to negotiate condom use. The same can be said for contraceptives. Health-care providers in some areas of the world are not even able to provide condoms consistently due to political or financial pressures.


An intravaginal ring under development might protect against pregnancy, HIV, and genital herpes.


But there are nonprofit groups researching and developing products to meet the needs of women in these countries. With the financial backing of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), CONRAD, a nonprofit committed to improving reproductive health globally, is testing a new intravaginal ring that combines a hormonal contraceptive, levonorgestrel, and an HIV microbicide, tenofovir, in the same product. When inserted vaginally, it slowly dispenses both drugs to prevent pregnancy and HIV transmission. Continue reading