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: 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

Why Do Newborns Need the Hepatitis B Vaccine?

The first vaccine a baby receives — within hours or days of birth — protects them from hepatitis B virus (HBV). In a lot of people’s minds, HBV is associated with drug use and sexual activity — which stigmatizes people who have been infected with HBV or are carriers of the virus. Unfortunately, this stigma causes a lot of people to question why babies even need to be vaccinated against it, often pointing to “Big Pharma” conspiracy theories. A lot of other people are put off by the misconception that the HBV vaccine is made with human blood (it’s not).


May is Hepatitis Awareness Month, a time to learn about a childhood vaccine that’s saved millions of lives.


There are perfectly good reasons to vaccinate babies against HBV, mainly that HBV is the leading cause of liver cancer, itself one of the Top 10 types of cancer worldwide. Nine out of 10 infants born to a mother who is an HBV carrier will develop chronic infections and become carriers themselves — and a quarter of them will die prematurely of liver disease. Babies who develop chronic HBV infections are 63 times more likely to develop liver cancer than non-carriers, a connection that is 2 to 3 times stronger than the link between smoking and lung cancer.

When it comes to HBV, age at infection matters. Most people with chronic HBV infections are exposed at birth or in early childhood, when they are most likely to develop chronic, lifelong infections — whereas only 2 to 6 percent of infected adults will develop chronic infections, with only 15 percent of them eventually dying from liver disease. The fact that chronic infection risk is inversely correlated with age at infection means that birth is the time when a child is the most vulnerable to this virus — hence the importance of vaccinating as early as possible. 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: 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

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: The Next Generation of Gardasil Is Coming!

noisemakersIt’s January, which means it’s time to festoon our surroundings with streamers, throw around the confetti, break out the noisemakers, and shout Happy Cervical Health Awareness Month!

And, in 2015, we have something huge to celebrate: Last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Gardasil 9, the next-generation HPV vaccine, which provides broader protection than the current version. Next month, the new and improved vaccine will start to be shipped to health care providers, and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is expected to give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the green light to recommend the vaccine, after which insurance plans and the Vaccines for Children program should start covering it.


The newest version of Gardasil protects against the seven strains of human papillomavirus that together cause 90 percent of cervical cancers.


Why is this news so exciting for people who care about cervical health? Because, while the current version of Gardasil, which debuted in 2006, protects recipients from the two HPV strains that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers, Gardasil 9 will protect against seven strains of HPV that collectively cause 90 percent of cervical cancers. On top of that, both versions of Gardasil protect against the two HPV strains that are together responsible for 90 percent of genital warts.

Gardasil 9 has been shown to be highly effective in clinical studies, and it is safe to use, which means Gardasil just became an even more potent weapon against cancers caused by HPV. Not only that, but vaccination against HPV will also reduce the frequency of precancerous lesions, which are cellular abnormalities that can be treated before progressing into full-fledged cancer. Less pre-cancer means less time, money, and anxiety spent dealing with followup procedures after an abnormal Pap test, for example. Continue reading