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

STD Awareness: Can I Get Gonorrhea from Kissing?

Not all types of kissing feature the exchange of saliva.

Some pretty depressing news hit a couple of months ago, when headlines proclaimed kissing could allow gonorrhea to jump from one person to another.

We already knew gonorrhea could be transmitted during oral sex — a terrible fact, given that most people don’t use condoms or dental dams during oral sex. And we knew that oral gonorrhea is more likely to develop drug resistance, which could be helping to drive the possibly untreatable gonorrhea of the near future.


Mouth-to-mouth kissing could be transmitting gonorrhea right under our noses — literally.


Gonorrhea is most famous as an infection of the cervix or the urethra. But the bacteria that cause gonorrhea can thrive in other warm, moist areas of your body — not just the reproductive tract, but also in the mouth, throat, eyes, and anus. Unprotected oral sex can allow those bacteria to travel in either direction between one person’s genitals and another person’s throat.

But what about mouth-to-mouth kissing, like French kissing? Is that enough to allow these bacteria to hitch a ride from one mouth to another? Previous research, using a mathematical model, estimated that mouth-to-mouth contact might be a significant — and underappreciated — mode of gonorrhea transmission. But that was a mathematical model, a sophisticated equation using what we know about a population’s gonorrhea prevalence and sexual behavior to estimate how frequently the infection is transmitted from one mouth to another. 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

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

STD Awareness: Can HIV Be Cured Now?

In 1991, when Timothy Ray Brown was in his 20s, he moved from the United States to Europe in search of adventure. His travels brought him to Berlin, where he put down roots and became a translator — but this newfound stability was quickly disrupted. A former boyfriend told him he had been diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and suggested Brown be tested as well. The results were positive. Brown calculated he had about two more years left to live.

His fortunes changed the next year when antiretroviral drugs transformed HIV from a death sentence to a manageable chronic disease. Life went on. But 10 years later, in 2006, he started noticing changes. While he usually made a 14-mile round trip on his bike to and from work, a quick ride to a café one mile away left him so winded he had to stop halfway through.


We still don’t have an HIV cure that works for everyone.


He was diagnosed with leukemia, a type of cancer that affects certain types of blood cells. He immediately began chemotherapy, a taxing regimen that nearly killed him when an infection forced his doctors to induce a coma. And when the cancer came back, his doctors recommended a bone marrow transplant, which involved wiping out his immune system with drugs and radiation. A year later, after his leukemia came back, he received a second bone marrow transplant. Recovery was grueling. He descended into delirium, nearly went blind, and was temporarily paralyzed. He had to undergo physical therapy to relearn how to walk and talk.

Miraculously, he came out of this near-death experience in full remission from leukemia. But the bone marrow transplants hadn’t just gotten rid of his leukemia. They had gotten rid of his HIV infection, too. The media dubbed him the “Berlin patient.” Continue reading

STD Awareness: The Syphilis Outbreak’s Youngest Victims

Arizona is officially in the midst of a syphilis outbreak that in 2018 claimed the lives of 10 infants. That’s the most babies to die of congenital syphilis in the state’s recent history. In addition to the 10 deaths, another 43 babies were born with syphilis, which can cause severe health problems.

The word “congenital” simply means the baby was born with syphilis after acquiring the infection in the womb. The bacteria that cause syphilis can cross the placenta to reach the fetus — and will do so in 80 percent of pregnancies in which syphilis is untreated. As many as 40 percent of babies infected with syphilis during pregnancy will be stillborn or will die soon after birth. The condition can also cause rashes, bone deformities, severe anemia, jaundice, blindness, and deafness. The good news is that congenital syphilis is almost completely preventable. When it is administered at the appropriate time and at the correct dosage, penicillin is 98 percent effective.


Prenatal care must include screening for syphilis, which can be cured with penicillin but can be deadly if not treated.


Syphilis used to be the most feared STD out there, but rates have been plunging since the discovery of effective antibiotics during the first half of the 20th century. By 2000, syphilis rates hit an all-time low, and many health experts thought the United States was at the dawn of the complete elimination of the disease. But it’s been making a comeback, and between 2013 and 2017 nationwide congenital syphilis rates more than doubled, with the number of affected babies at a 20-year high.

Areas in the southern and western United States have been especially hard hit. Arizona has the sixth-highest congenital syphilis rate in the country, after Louisiana, Nevada, California, Texas, and Florida. Our congenital syphilis rate doubled between 2016 and 2017 — in terms of sheer numbers, most of these cases originated in Maricopa County, but officials say it’s disproportionately affecting rural areas. Gila County, which is east of Phoenix and home to the old mining town Globe, has the highest syphilis rate in the state. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Syphilis Treatment Through the Ages

The spiral-shaped bacteria that causes syphilis.

When syphilis first descended upon Europe, questions surrounded this mysterious scourge. Was it a punishment from God? Was it introduced by a hated Other? Was it caused by the stars’ alignment or the presence of “bad air”? We now know that syphilis is not caused by supernatural forces, foreigners, or a harmful atmosphere, but rather by a species of corkscrew-shaped bacteria called Treponema pallidum, which is spread by sexual contact — vaginal, anal, or oral sex — in which one person comes into contact with a syphilis sore.


Thanks to penicillin, we don’t have to go back to the “good old days” of puke chalices, antivenereal underpants, and rat poison.


Before good treatments were developed in the 20th century, syphilis was the most feared STD out there. Its initial symptoms can include a painless sore filled with a highly infectious liquid. As the infection spreads, lesions and rashes might appear on the soles of the feet or the palms of the hand. After these first waves of symptoms, the infection enters a latent phase, which can lull people into a false sense of security, thinking the disease has disappeared. Unfortunately, 15 percent of people with untreated syphilis reach the late stage, which can occur up to 20 years after initial infection, and includes severe damage to the nervous system, brain, heart, or other organs, and can be fatal.

These days, a shot of penicillin is all it takes to cure syphilis. Back in the day, though, there were myriad “treatments” for syphilis — but they were highly toxic and ineffective. Unfortunately, thanks to the latent phase of syphilis, it often seemed like these treatments did work, which probably explains why folks tortured themselves with them for centuries. If only penicillin had been around: Countless people would have been spared the unpleasant — and often fatal — quackery that syphilis attracted. Continue reading