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: Confronting Sky-High STD Rates

For the past five years, Americans have been breaking records left and right — a good thing when we’re talking about athletic feats or scientific breakthroughs, but not so great when we’re shattering records for catching sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis are all on the upswing, with a combined 2.3 million cases in 2017 — and those are just the cases that were reported. Since most people with these infections don’t know they have them, the real number is thought to be much higher. The United States has the dubious honor of boasting the highest STD rates of all industrialized countries — though rates are also climbing in England and Western Europe.

The good news is that these three STDs are preventable and curable. Sexually active people can dramatically reduce their risk by using condoms and dental dams, or by being in mutually monogamous relationships in which partners test negative for these infections. And, because many STDs don’t show symptoms, it’s important for them to receive regular STD screening to ensure infections are caught and cured before they can do any damage.

But there’s also bad news. First, while the symptoms of these infections can be awful, they compel you to seek prompt treatment — making these awful symptoms a good thing, in a weird way. Unfortunately, most people with these infections don’t have symptoms, allowing the bacteria that cause them to spread silently from person to person. If not caught, chlamydia and gonorrhea can lead to chronic pain and fertility problems, and syphilis can lead to organ damage and even death. These infections can also increase HIV risk and be passed to a baby during childbirth. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Is Mouthwash a Match for Gonorrhea’s Superpowers?

Since the 1930s, we’ve enjoyed around eight decades of easily cured gonorrhea — at least in places with easy access to antibiotics — but experts fear those days are numbered. In the past year or so, cases of untreatable gonorrhea have occasionally made headlines.

Thanks to the powers of evolution, some bacteria have acquired the multiple genes necessary to withstand the onslaught of the pills and shots administered by doctors. Gonococci, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea, are starting to win this “arms race” with humans, whose antibiotic arsenals are losing effectiveness. And with gonorrhea on the rise, gonococci may be evolving at an ever-quickening clip.


In 1879, Listerine claimed to cure gonorrhea. Today, scientists are finally testing that claim. We await the results.


Oral Gonorrhea: The Silent Scourge

Many experts believe oral gonorrhea is a key driver of antibiotic resistance. These infections usually don’t cause symptoms, and without symptoms people usually don’t seek treatment. Without treatment, gonococci can hang out in a throat for up to three months.

After transmission by oral sex — and possibly even by kissing  — gonococci can set up camp in the throat, which is an ideal environment for acquiring antibiotic resistance. They might not be causing symptoms, but they’re not sitting there twiddling their thumbs, either. If there’s one thing gonococci love to do, it’s collecting genes like some of us collect trading cards, and the throat is a gathering place for closely related bacteria species that hand out antibiotic-resistance genes for their expanding collections.

Gonococci can easily scavenge DNA from their surroundings — say, from a dead bacterium — and patch long segments of these genes into their own DNA, creating genetic hybrids between themselves and other organisms. Last month, scientists from Indiana University caught this phenomenon on video for the first time.

Continue reading

STD Awareness: UK Announces “Worst-Ever” Case of Gonorrhea

In late March, the BBC reported a story that was widely repeated in headlines across the world: “Man has ‘world’s worst’ super-gonorrhoea.”

The article told the story of a British man whose symptoms started in early 2018, about a month after he had picked up the bug during a visit to Southeast Asia. Once back home, his doctors were unable to cure it with the standard combination of azithromycin and ceftriaxone — “the first time the infection cannot be cured with first choice antibiotics,” the author wrote.


In most of the world, we don’t have a good picture of antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea.


Actually, a similar case of multidrug-resistant gonorrhea had been documented in the United Kingdom in late 2014, as noted in the New England Journal of Medicine. It was the first verified case to fail to be cured by the azithromycin/ceftriaxone combo — the infection didn’t go away until after the patient was given a double dose of both antibiotics, but by then it had been 112 days and the infection could have cleared on its own. By July 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) had noted that there had been multiple documented cases of gonorrhea that were “untreatable by all known antibiotics.”

What was different about the man in the BBC story was that his case of ceftriaxone-resistant gonorrhea had a higher level of azithromycin resistance than those that came before. While it may not have truly been the first case of multidrug-resistant gonorrhea that couldn’t be treated with the standard dual therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone, it was the “most serious.” Continue reading

STD Awareness: Herpes in the Headlines

Two separate stories about herpes have popped up in recent headlines, and the news isn’t good. A “citizen-scientist” injected an untested herpes treatment live on Facebook, sidestepping preliminary studies on safety and effectiveness. Meanwhile, research into a promising herpes vaccine was shut down as the extent of one scientist’s severe ethics violations came to light. Both stories show that there is a strong demand for ways to prevent, treat, and cure herpes — and both are case studies in the wrong way to bring such therapies to market.


Unscrupulous researchers may take advantage of people with stigmatized infections like herpes.


Herpes is a sexually transmitted virus that can cause “outbreaks” of painful genital sores. Afterward, the virus goes dormant in the nerve cells, hiding from the immune system. In some people, the virus can “wake up” to cause temporary flare-ups of symptoms. Given how common this virus is, a preventive shot could help a lot of couples discuss their herpes status without as much fear of judgment and stigma.

While someday an effective herpes vaccine might be developed, recent headlines have been unfortunate examples of scientific experimentation gone horribly wrong.

Citizen-Scientists Doing it Wrong

On February 4, at a biohacking conference, Aaron Traywick took off his pants in front of an audience and injected his thigh with a syringe containing a never-before-tested herpes treatment — a type of gene therapy, a treatment that alters a patient’s DNA by inserting genes into their cells. Frustrated by the testing that pharmaceutical companies must do, and the regulations they’re saddled with, he thought his startup company could leapfrog over these steps and go straight from the lab to human testing, using himself as a guinea pig. In addition to the alleged herpes “cure” that Traywick injected himself with, his company makes a similar herpes vaccine, which they hope will prevent herpes infections in those who don’t have it. Continue reading

Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

  • Republican legislators in Arizona sure have a lot of nerve. They want to mandate that doctors performing abortions ask “why” a woman is terminating her pregnancy. What is the “why” behind this invasive questioning other than wanting to intrude upon the privacy of a woman undergoing a perfectly legal medical procedure? (AZ Central)
  • We at Planned Parenthood will always stress the importance of comprehensive sex education in schools. If you happen to think that sex education isn’t crucial to children’s development, I welcome you to read this disturbing but informative piece over at the New York Times. In the age of widespread smartphone access, young, impressionable kids are learning about sex from the worst source possible — online porn. (NY Times)
  • Speaking of the NYT, why does columnist David Brooks have such a fundamental misunderstanding of late-term abortions (and the fact that only slightly more than 1 percent of abortions are performed at 21 weeks or later, according to the Guttmacher Institute) and the reasons women have them? This is a highly educated, privileged man with access to soooo many educational resources and statistics on the subject … It’s almost like he’s being willfully ignorant! (Slate)
  • How Trump’s Global Gag Rule Is Devastating Abortion Rights & So Much More One Year Later (Bustle)
  • Alarming news: Head and neck cancers caused by HPV are expected to outnumber cervical cancer cases in the next few years. (U.S. News & World Report)
  • Additionally, men infected with HPV-16, the type responsible for most HPV-related cancers, are 20 times more likely to be reinfected with the same type of HPV after one year. (Science Daily)
  • Thank you, Cosmo, for highlighting Planned Parenthood’s efforts to increase access to telemedicine abortion in 2018. Ensuring women have choices and access to safe procedures will always be a meaningful endeavor for us. (Cosmopolitan)
  • Women who were denied an abortion are three times more likely to be unemployed than women who were able to access one. Women’s access to reproductive health care has an undeniable economic impact! How many times do we have to highlight this connection? (Rewire)
  • Excuse me if I sound radical, but Trump and the Republicans’ war on Medicaid is tantamount to genocide of the poor. (Salon)

Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

  • Arizona Republican Don Shooter has been expelled from the state Legislature over years of sexually harassing women. Good riddance to bad rubbish. (AZ Central)
  • It’s so nice to be able to report that the useless and arbitrary 20-week abortion ban being peddled by Republicans failed in the Senate! Republicans run every branch of government but, embarrassingly, continue to lose their battles. (Politico)
  • In the post-#MeToo era, it is crucial that children learn not just about their bodies and hormones, but about safety, consent, and healthy relationships. These are all topics that should be part of a compassionate, fully comprehensive sexual education program for all children. (Chicago Tribune)
  • The Virginia Senate agrees: They just passed legislation to require high schools in Virginia to include consent in their curriculum. (The Breeze)
  • Good news: A federal district court on Monday blocked a Texas measure that would require health care providers to bury or cremate embryonic or fetal tissue from abortions, miscarriage, or treatment for ectopic pregnancy. (Rewire)
  • Bad news: STD cases among people 55 and older are on the rise here in Arizona. (Fox 10)
  • If you’re relying on an app for birth control, please read this! (Self)
  • There is a growing underground movement of people across America who have taught themselves to help women terminate pregnancies without a doctor. How sad that this is even necessary 45 years after Roe v. Wade. Is this what we want for women? For them to have to go “underground” and risk life and limb in order to have access to a legal medical procedure? Do we realize that is what we’re fostering in this country by making it impossible for women to end unwanted pregnancies? This breaks my heart. (Mother Jones)
  • Three civil rights organizations have filed a lawsuit against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for rolling back protections for students who report sexual assault. (Huff Po)
  • A question any thinking person should be asking: Why does it cost $32,093 just to give birth in America? (Guardian)
  • Could Ireland, one of the most anti-abortion countries in Europe, be close to decriminalizing abortion? (NY Times)
  • The Trump administration officials in charge of the Office of Refugee Resettlement were so set upon forcing an undocumented teen to give birth against her will, they worked themselves into a crazed lather contemplating ways to “reverse” the termination of her pregnancy, which was already in progress. (Vice)
  • Could a toxic plant really be the precursor to an effective male birth control option? (Gizmodo)
  • Get a load of this malarkey: A recent focus group on abortion views shows anti-abortion respondents seem to believe that men understand abortion better than women and that women who have abortions are unintelligent and irresponsible. When asked whether men whose partner was having an abortion understood that it was ending a potential life, 51 percent of abortion opponents said yes. But when asked if women getting abortions understood the procedure, only 36 percent of anti-choicers agreed that a woman knows what she is doing. Abortion foes were also more likely to say they were more comfortable when women were housewives instead of seeking careers.

    Always remember: This is what people who don’t want women to control their bodies and lives think of us. They hold the sincere belief that we lack basic intelligence and the ability to think critically. They think we are inferior to men and that we have no value outside of some man’s kitchen. Gag me. (Salon)