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: 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

The Racist Roots of the War on Sex Ed

JBS-supported billboard accusing Martin Luther King Jr. of communist ties. Image: Bob Fitch photography archive, Stanford University Libraries

The 1960s were a decade of dramatic social and political changes, many of them catalyzed by the shock of assassinations or the dawn of culture-changing technology like the birth control pill.

It would seem, then, that by the end of the decade it would have taken an especially grave development to prompt warnings of a “subversive monstrosity,” a “mushrooming program” that was forced upon an unwitting public through an insidious campaign of “falsehoods, deceptions, pressures, and pretenses.”

The John Birch Society published those words 50 years ago this month in their January 1969 newsletter. What atrocity spurred JBS founder Robert Welch Jr. to write this clarion call? No trigger warning is needed for this one. He was alerting his readers to the “filthy Communist plot” known as sex education.


It wasn’t just premarital and extramarital sex that stirred anxieties. So, too, did interracial sex.


Welch’s alarmist language was common currency in an organization that was known for its anti-Semitism and its espousal of conspiracy theories. They were traits that kept the Birchers’ numbers modest throughout the 1960s and ’70s — an estimated 20,000 to 100,000 members — and led to the group’s decline in later decades. The JBS, a far-right group that advocated for limited government, got its name from a Baptist missionary and military pilot who was killed by Chinese communists — an early martyr of the Cold War.

However fringe they may have been, Welch’s words signaled the beginning of intensive backlash against sex ed among a broader base of conservatives. Within months, that backlash put organizations like the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Medical Association on the defensive. As the debate raged, the NEA sought allies nationwide in churches, civic groups, and the media to save sex ed. By the following year, the NEA was reporting that sex ed programs had been “canceled, postponed, or curtailed” in 13 states and were under scrutiny in 20 state legislatures. Continue reading

STD Awareness: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) have been with us since the dawn of time — or at least since the dawn of sex. And, as we continue to hone our approach to preventing and treating them, STDs will always grab headlines, whether the news is bad or good.

The Good

Can the HIV epidemic be stopped?

For more than a decade, AIDS, the illness caused by HIV, was seen as a death sentence. It wasn’t until the mid-’90s that antiretroviral drugs kept the virus in check, prolonging lifespans for people with access to these medications and transforming the infection into a chronic disease. Now, those dreaming of an end to HIV are seeing reasons for optimism. No, a cure isn’t in the works — but many researchers believe we can end the epidemic through prevention.

Ending HIV transmission will take money and an efficient health care infrastructure, but we have the tools to do it. It starts with expanding access to HIV testing — an estimated 15 percent of Americans with HIV are unaware of their status. The next step is to ensure that everyone testing positive has access to antiretroviral drugs. When used correctly, these medications keep viral levels so low that the chances of transmission are virtually nonexistent. More recently, medications called PrEP — pre-exposure prophylaxis — enable people without HIV to protect themselves from infection. Condoms, of course, are a time-tested prevention tool. Gathered together, we have a pretty mighty arsenal. Here in the United States, we could stop HIV transmission in its tracks in just a handful of years. Of course, people all around the world will need access to testing and treatment to halt this scourge on a global level. 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