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

Let’s Talk Contraception: Can I Use Birth Control to Skip a Period?

In 2003, the FDA approved Seasonale, an extended-cycle birth control pill. This pill, a combination of estrogen and progestin, is taken daily for 84 days followed by one week of inactive (placebo) pills, allowing a woman to have her period once every three months — four times per year.

Since that time, several other extended-cycle birth control pills have been marketed, including Lybrel, released in 2007, which offers women continuous contraception coverage with only one period per year.


Using birth control to skip periods doesn’t result in side effects quite this exaggerated.

Prior to Seasonale’s debut, certain types of birth control pills could be taken back to back, allowing users to have period-free weddings and honeymoons, or to treat certain conditions, such as endometriosis. But there was no consensus about how to use birth control pills this way, and no actual product marketed specifically for this type of use. Early studies on extended-cycle pills reported that users were highly satisfied using pills to have fewer periods — and wanted to continue using these pills to reduce periods after the study was completed.

Can skipping periods be beneficial or harmful? Is this a lifestyle choice that’s not “natural”? How many “normal” periods do you need in a lifetime? Continue reading

Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does, Part 16: Blood Tests to Screen for Ovarian Cancer

repro systemWelcome to the latest installment of “Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does,” a series on Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona’s blog that highlights Planned Parenthood’s diverse array of services — the ones Jon Kyl never knew about.


September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.


Ovarian cancer can strike anyone with ovaries, although it is most common in people who are more than 55 years old. It starts when certain mutations in ovarian cells start to proliferate, resulting in tumor growth. (Some types of ovarian cancer can originate in the fallopian tubes, but most ovarian cancers arise from the cells that cover the surface of the ovary.) If a cancerous cell breaks away, it might set up camp elsewhere in the body, resulting in the cancer’s spread. It can be a serious condition, affecting around one out of 71 ovary-wielding individuals.

What causes ovarian cancer?

If you learned about the reproductive system in school, you probably remember that ovulation involves the release of an egg from an ovary. What your teacher probably didn’t tell you is that the process of ovulation is actually rather violent. An egg does not exit the ovary through a preexisting “doorway” and shuttle down the fallopian tube to make its way to the uterus. Nope, when an egg is “released,” it actually bursts through the ovary itself.

OH YEAHUnfortunately, during ovulation, the egg perforates the ovary, creating a lot of tissue damage. The ovary needs to repair itself, sort of like how bricklayers will need to be hired to fix that mess left by the Kool Aid man. Because ovarian cells are so often replicating themselves during the repair process, there are more chances for an error to occur. Cells that divide frequently, like ovarian cells, are more prone to becoming cancerous. Continue reading

Diagnosing Endometriosis

If you missed it, you can read the previous post explaining the basics of endometriosis here. In this post, we’ll look a little more at how endometriosis is diagnosed as well as some current barriers to diagnosis.


Wait. So you’re telling me that killer cramps of doom aren’t normal? If I did suspect I had endo, how would I go about getting diagnosed?

Endometriosis diagnosis is a tricky thing in that there’s no in-office procedure that can definitively determine whether someone has the condition or not. However, because the “gold standard” test is laparoscopy with biopsy — a surgical procedure — many health care providers prefer to do some in-office tests before recommending laparoscopy. The most common such procedures are pelvic exams and ultrasounds, which may allow a provider to see or feel if the endometrial lesions have formed cysts (known as “endometriomas”), but won’t pick up on smaller lesions.

Another complicating factor is that endometriosis isn’t the only cause of either dysmenorrhea or chronic pelvic pain. Other causes can include uterine fibroids, pelvic floor dysfunction, pelvic inflammatory disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and interstitial cystitis.

Even with laparoscopy, diagnosis isn’t necessarily straightforward. Not only is it a surgical procedure, which carries with it extra expense and risk, but even then, presence of the disease is often missed or underestimated. Seeking out a doctor who specializes in endometriosis can minimize this, but of course, due to geographic, cost, or other access issues, this isn’t always possible. Continue reading

Are Pap Tests Accurate?

If you follow health news, you might have noticed some controversy over certain cancer-screening methods: Does the evidence support mammograms as a tool to reduce breast cancer deaths? Are PSA tests effective in saving lives from prostate cancer? These are questions that we are beginning to answer as more and more evidence comes in. But don’t let these questions dissuade you from all cancer screening.


With regular Pap testing, cervical cancer is almost 100 percent preventable.


In fact, although we’re reevaluating data for other cancer-screening methods, we have mountains of solid evidence that the Pap test is one of the best cancer-screening methods out there. Because it detects signature mutations that mark cells as headed toward becoming cancerous, Pap testing detects “pre” cancer while other cancer-screening techniques, like mammography, only detect cancer.

Cervical cancer used to be a top killer in developed nations — and it remains a major cause of death in countries without widespread health-care access — but in the last 50 years, cervical cancer deaths fell by 70 percent in the United States, transforming cervical cancer from the leading cause of cancer death among American women to a less common, nearly preventable cancer. Despite this, you might hear people complain that the Pap test isn’t accurate, citing the possibility of receiving “false positive” or “false negative” results.

A Pap test looks for abnormalities in cervical cells, and you can receive one of these four results:

True Positive: Cellular abnormalities are detected, and they are in fact present. True Negative: Cellular abnormalities are not detected, and in fact the cells are normal.
False Positive: Cellular abnormalities are detected, but the cells are actually normal. False Negative: Cellular abnormalities are not detected, but are actually present.

When we receive a true positive result, we can receive treatment for precancerous lesions that in fact might otherwise lead to cancer. Likewise, when we receive a true negative result, no further treatment is needed. Continue reading

Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does, Part 12: Colposcopy

Welcome to the latest installment of “Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does,” a series on Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona’s blog that highlights Planned Parenthood’s diverse array of services — the ones Jon Kyl doesn’t know about.

When talking about Pap tests — particularly when discussing abnormal Pap results — one procedure that comes up a lot is the colposcopy.

It can sound intimidating and clinical on its own. And if you’re anything like me, you may have — ahem — occasionally confused it with the significantly more internal colonoscopy. For the sake of everyone’s anxiety levels, it may be best to set the record straight.


What is a colposcopy, and what should you expect from the procedure?


Why am I getting a colposcopy?

The most common reason for undergoing a colposcopy is having an abnormal Pap test result, particularly one that, when tested for DNA of human papillomavirus, yielded a positive result. Effectively, there are some abnormal cervical cells with HPV present. Because this could potentially progress to cervical cancer down the line, this combination makes health care providers want to get a closer look at what’s going on.

That said, colposcopies are sometimes performed for other reasons, such as genital warts on the cervix, cervicitis (inflamed cervix), or benign cervical polyps. Continue reading

Interpreting Abnormal Pap Tests

Because a Pap test screens for abnormal cervical cells and because those cell changes can be associated with cervical cancer, being on the receiving end of an abnormal Pap test result can be frightening, intimidating, and confusing.

On the “frightening” aspect: Some people assume that an abnormal Pap means that cervical cancer is imminent. On the contrary, the National Cancer Institute not only states that cervical cancer, when it develops, takes “many years” to do so, but also that “[t]he majority of infections with high-risk HPVs [human papillomaviruses] clear up on their own.” This is not to suggest that regular screenings aren’t important — but rather, that they do their job and detect cervical changes in plenty of time to prevent cancer from developing in the first place.


Remember that if you’re confused about your Pap test results, part of your health care provider’s job is to answer your questions and keep you informed.


On the “confusing”: It’s true. There are a lot of different letter codes. Though some of them look awfully similar, they each mean a different thing. Moreover, the clinical recommendations for how to follow up with an abnormal Pap can depend not only on the code — in other words, the specific abnormal result — but also on one’s age and medical history.

Ready to sort them out?

Most labs in the United States use a classification system called the Bethesda System in order to have some standard terminology when reporting results. The Bethesda System uses the term squamous intraepithelial lesion to describe changes on the surface of the cervix. It categorizes those changes in these ways: Continue reading