STD Awareness: New STDs on the Block, and STDs Making a Comeback

Lately, a lot of us have had tunnel vision when it comes to infectious diseases. We talk about how long the virus that causes COVID-19 can live on various surfaces, even though other viruses can live on those same surfaces for even longer. We wonder if it can be sexually transmitted, while there are dozens of other bugs out there that are even more easily passed through sexual contact. There are more microbes out there than just the one that causes COVID-19, and we need to be mindful of their risks, too.

Last month, the New England Journal of Medicine published a piece about “old-timey” STDs that are making a comeback (think shigellosis), newer STDs to hit the scene (think Zika virus), and “classic” STDs that are finding new ways to harm us (think antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea). Let’s meet this rogues’ gallery of sexually transmitted bugs.

Shigella bacteria. Image: CDC

Shigellosis is a diarrheal disease caused by Shigella species of bacteria, which can be found in abundance in feces — making it relatively easy to pick up these bugs during sexual encounters involving oral-anal contact (“rimming” or anilingus). While Shigella are mostly transmitted through nonsexual routes, researchers have discovered that sexually transmitted shigellosis is much more likely to be resistant to multiple antibiotics — making them a serious threat.

Reduce your risk by practicing good hand hygiene and keeping a clean kitchen and bathroom; using condoms and dental dams during sex. Continue reading

STD Awareness: When Syphilis Goes North

The bacteria that cause syphilis are shaped like corkscrews. Image: David Cox, CDC

Last month, a “weird” medical case made headlines. An Australian man with unexplained headaches and eye pain got a diagnosis for his mysterious symptoms when his doctors discovered he had syphilis — and the infection had spread to his head. Syphilis had caused both optic nerves to become swollen, triggering pain that worsened whenever he moved his eyes.

It might seem strange that a disease most people associate with below-the-belt symptoms can wreak havoc above the neck, but syphilis is a wanderer that can travel all over the body, sowing chaos wherever it goes.


Syphilis can quickly enter the nervous system and travel to the head, where it can cause blindness, psychiatric problems, and other trouble.


Ocular Syphilis

The bacteria that cause syphilis can be passed from one person to another through contact with a sore, which can appear on or around the mouth, genitals, or anus. Any type of sexual contact, including oral sex, can transmit these bacteria. Sores are painless, contain a highly infectious liquid, and can appear between three weeks to three months after infection. These sores aren’t always visible, which means you can’t tell if someone has syphilis just by looking at them.

Although the bacteria typically land in the mouth, genitals, or anus, they can also be sexually transmitted directly into the eye, causing redness and vision problems. After infection, syphilis sores can appear on the eyelids, tear ducts, and soft tissues around the eyes. Bacteria can also travel to the eye by entering the nervous system and blazing a trail to the optic nerve — no direct contact between the eye and a sore necessary. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Fighting STDs with Education

Here in Arizona, Tucson Unified School District has been taking steps toward adopting a comprehensive, inclusive, age-appropriate, and medically accurate sex education program, but it’s been repeatedly delayed by a vocal minority. In September, a vote was put on hold after the superintendent recommended changing the proposed curriculum to focus on abstinence as the preferred method for avoiding STDs and unintended pregnancies.


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Additionally, many opponents of TUSD’s proposed curriculum believe its inclusiveness of LGBTQ kids is tantamount to “indoctrination,” that this type of education “sexualizes” children, and that discussions of gender identity will confuse students. LGBTQ kids have traditionally been ignored or demeaned in sex education programs, and their health matters too. Presenting medically accurate and age-appropriate information does not indoctrinate or sexualize children — it simply helps them make healthy decisions, no matter who they are. And these days, students need to be empowered with as much knowledge as possible to make decisions that protect their health.

Confronting the STD Epidemic

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its annual report on sexually transmitted diseases. It did not contain good news. For the fifth straight year, STD rates are climbing.

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

STD Awareness: The Long Road to a Chlamydia Vaccine

Earlier this year, television personality John Oliver was the butt of an elaborate prank orchestrated by actor Russell Crowe. It started with an auctioned jock strap, and ended with Crowe funding the John Oliver Koala Chlamydia Ward at the Australia Zoo. If you want the full story, check out the video below (beware explicit language).

Despite Oliver playing it for laughs, koala chlamydia is very real and very serious. At least half of wild koalas are infected with a chlamydia type that’s related to the human version. As in humans, koalas can transmit these bacteria through sexual contact. And, similar to the havoc it wreaks in our species, in koalas chlamydia can cause blindness, urinary tract infections, and female infertility — and can be passed from mother to infant. Along with other factors, chlamydia is said to be responsible for plummeting koala populations in many parts of Australia. 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