STD Awareness: STI vs. STD … What’s the Difference?

When it comes to sexually transmitted diseases, the terminology can be confusing. Some people use the phrase “STD,” some people insist “STI” is the proper set of initials, and every once in a while you might catch someone using the term “VD.” Over the years, the parlance has changed. What’s the deal?

VD: Venereal Disease

Blaming women for STDs (aka VD) is an age-old tradition.

“Venereal disease” has been in use since at least the 1600s (the Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1667 publication referring to a “a lusty robust Souldier dangerously infected with the Venereal Disease”). Around a century ago, Americans flirted with heavily euphemistic expressions, such as “social diseases,” but mostly, “venereal disease” was the terminology of choice for the better part of four centuries — slightly less euphemistic, as “venereal” was derived from Venus, the Roman goddess of love, sex, and fertility. Additionally, since at least the 1920s it was frequently shortened to “VD.” Those of us of a certain age might still remember hushed talk of VD among our grandparents, parents, or peers.

Around the 1930s, public health experts started wondering if referring to VD as a separate category of disease stigmatized these infections and those who carried them, dampening motivation to fight them with the same fervor with which the community battled other infectious diseases like influenza, smallpox, and scarlet fever. In 1936, Nels A. Nelson proposed replacing “venereal disease” with “genito-infectious diseases,” but that never caught on — you haven’t heard of GIDs, right? Continue reading

Celebrating Mexico’s Contributions to the Birth Control Pill

September 15 to October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month. We’re celebrating by shining the spotlight on Mexico’s role in developing the birth control pill, one of the most important medical breakthroughs of the 20th century.


Humanity cannot fully unlock its potential until we release the bonds of oppression from all marginalized groups.


Underneath the surface of a large swath of Southern Mexico’s jungles lay the enormous roots of a wild yam, Dioscorea composita, known locally as barbasco. Mostly it was considered a nuisance, as it could get in the way of subsistence agriculture, but it did have its uses in traditional medicine — and it would change history forever when scientists figured out how to wrest valuable chemical compounds from it, a discovery that led directly to the development of the birth control pill.

Russell Marker. Image: Penn State University ArchivesIn the 1940s, hormones held an untapped potential for research, but there was no cost-effective method of producing large quantities of them — including progesterone, the Pill’s essential ingredient. An American chemist named Russell Marker set out to find a way to synthesize progesterone in abundance, hypothesizing that plants from the genus Dioscorea, which includes yams and agaves, would be a good source for starting material. After some research, he set his sights on wild-growing yams that were found only in Mexico.

Marker’s hunch brought him south of the U.S. border, where locals helped him find and gather these yams, enabling him to develop a method for synthesizing large batches of progesterone — more than had ever been in one place. When pharmaceutical companies would not invest in further research in Mexico, Marker relocated to Mexico City and put his money where his mouth was. In January 1944, he co-founded a lab named Syntex — a portmanteau of “synthesis” and “Mexico” — devoted to finagling hormones from wild Mexican yams. That yam was called barbasco by the indigenous population, and it was the industry’s choice for the raw material in hormone synthesis. Continue reading

One Simple Kit

A community health worker teaches how to make cloth pads. Photo: Nyaya Health

A community health worker teaches how to make cloth pads. Photo: Nyaya Health

Last week, I texted a friend of mine and told her: I have a hard choice before me. When she asked what that was, I smiled as I replied: I must choose between replenishing the MAC mascara that I just ran out of and buying the new Harry Potter book. We both laughed. But really, even as a single mom who falls beneath the poverty level, this was my choice of the day.

I have known hard times. I have lived in my car with my two dogs and I have had to volunteer my time cleaning my son’s school to ensure that he gets an education because I couldn’t afford the monthly tuition. I have taken hits by the ones I love, both physical and metaphorical, and I have had my innocence stolen from me by a boy I hardly knew.


One simple kit is combating poverty, hunger, and gender inequality.


Yet somewhere across a sea, a young girl sits in her room, blood gushing from her for reasons unbeknownst to her. Fear brings tears to her eyes as she struggles to understand why God has cursed her. That is what her mother has taught her. That if such a thing occurs, it is a curse from her creator for being a filthy creature. A girl her age tells her that she has contracted a disease, something she couldn’t remember the three letters to reference, but she knew was deadly.

In a rural region in southern Malawi, a girl who has had her first period may be expected to undergo a “sexual cleansing” ritual, in which she is made to have unprotected sex with a man called a hyena — a risky proposition in a country in which nearly 1 in 10 adults has HIV. Her choice to deny such an offer could result in her entire family being stricken ill or even dead — at least that is what she is told. Continue reading

The Best of 2015: A Year of Blogging

Every week, we publish new material on the blog — a feat that would not be possible without the dedication and talents of our amazing volunteer bloggers! It is our not-so-humble opinion that the blog publishes high-quality, informative, insightful, and sometimes downright fun pieces, and the entire Planned Parenthood Arizona family is so proud to have it as a showcase. To commemorate another successful year of blogging, we asked our bloggers to pick their favorite posts from 2015.

holding hands from backRebecca usually writes about contraception, but in 2015 she conceptualized the new Teen Talk series, aimed at our younger readers but still plenty relevant to people of all ages. One of her favorite pieces was about the decision to abstain from sexual activity. While we live in a culture in which a lot of us feel pressure to have sex — even before we’re ready — we all have the right to make our own choices about sex, including the choice not to have it! For some of us, saying no can be hard, but can also be liberating. The issue of abstinence is highly fraught in our culture, but we love Rebecca’s deft and respectful handling of the topic.

gloria thumbnailAnne is our newest blogger, and we have been blessed by her lively prose! Anne’s favorite post was called Abortion: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, in which she wrote about the growing movement to fight stigma by “shouting our abortions” — rather than whispering about them or staying quiet. Given that 1 in 3 women has had an abortion yet the topic remains so taboo, the issue is largely shrouded in secrecy and silence. Anne shares her own story — and speaks powerfully about why it’s so important to shatter that silence once and for all. If “coming out” was so successful for the LGBTQ community, will it also help foster compassion and spread visibility for the many people who have had abortions?

breastfeedingCynthia was another new addition to the blogging team this year, and her debut post was also her favorite. In August, to celebrate National Breastfeeding Month, Cynthia shared her sweet story of breastfeeding and bonding. She wrote about how breastfeeding her son was the most “rewarding, challenging, frustrating, amazing, and empowering” thing she’s ever done. Breast milk has myriad benefits for both mother and baby, and Cynthia covered many of them in an informative post interwoven with her personal experiences and insights.

Stadium thumbnailMatt continues to write insightful posts about the intersection between the personal and the political. In August, Matt helped herald the football season with his look at how expanding the University of Arizona’s stadium shrunk abortion access in the state. As he so eloquently wrote, “Abortion was never meant to be a bargaining chip. It was sacrificed in 1974 to give more football fans a seat at the game. It’s time undo the damage and give more abortion supporters a seat in the legislature.” Whether you’re a Wildcats fan or simply interested in learning more about this chapter in reproductive-justice history, we think you’ll be fascinated (and enraged) to learn about the stadium deal.

Anna is a graduate student in health sciences who has carved out a niche for herself as our unofficial STD blogger. One topic she keeps coming back to is antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, which is classified as an “urgent threat” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thanks to the bacteria’s ability to evolve so quickly, we only have one good antibiotic left to cure this serious infection — and no new ones on the horizon. Find out how the bacteria that cause gonorrhea are able to evade our pharmaceutical arsenal, whether they’re having “bacteria sex” with one another or grabbing genes from their cousins. These bugs have a unique talent for altering their genes, which would be admirable if it weren’t so worrying!

Harvey Milk Day thumbnailMichelle celebrated Harvey Milk Day with a touching tribute to this pioneering LGBTQ leader, who would have blown out 85 candles on his birthday cake last May — if his life hadn’t been cut short in a senseless and tragic assassination in 1978. As one of the first openly gay politicians ever to be elected to public office, Milk sponsored an anti-discrimination bill, fought to establish daycare centers for working mothers, helped to increase low-cost housing options, and consistently advocated for the rights of all marginalized communities. Check out Michelle’s piece to learn more about Harvey Milk, what he accomplished, and why his legacy is so important to celebrate!

condom and hand thumbnailJon joined us early this year — first as an intern, and then as a volunteer blogger. We loved the piece he wrote about the place birth control has in his life, especially in a world in which the birth control burden can too often fall on women’s shoulders alone. Jon used condoms to take responsibility for his part in preventing pregnancy, and to boost the effectiveness of his partners’ birth control pills. With typical use, condoms and oral contraceptives can combine to be more than 98 percent effective! For Jon, birth control helped him plan his future, complete his education, and forge relationships — and condoms were an essential component of that toolkit.

standwithpp pic thumbnailKelley actually isn’t a Planned Parenthood volunteer — they’re our public policy manager! That didn’t stop them from contributing some strong pieces to the blog. For Trans Awareness Month, Kelley shared their journey to living authentically — a post that was both heartfelt yet humorous, personal yet universal. In Arizona, Kelley can be fired for their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression — but feels lucky to have found a supportive home with Planned Parenthood. No matter what month it is, Planned Parenthood supports the trans community because we stand for autonomy over one’s own body, identity, and decisions.

World AIDS Day: Fighting the Stigma Is Half the Battle

RibbonThey say words can never hurt you, but in certain parts of the world, there are three letters that can take away everything dear to you: HIV.

Can you imagine having your family disown you? What if doctors refused to treat you, even with basic care? What would it feel like if you were not allowed to pursue any form of education? How about if you had no possibility of a future with a romantic partner?


We will never make strides in preventing HIV transmission until we confront the taboos that surround it.


This is reality for millions of men, women, and children in sub-Saharan Africa who have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. As of 2013, that number was 24.7 million, which accounts for the vast majority of the world’s total reported cases, which by 2014 approached 37 million people, 2.6 million of whom were children. In 2013 alone, 1.5 million sub-Saharan Africans were newly infected. Since the first case was reported in 1981, a certain stigma has always lingered around the disease. Many in the United States refer to it as the “gay disease” or accuse those infected of bestiality. They may say that someone who has been diagnosed should avoid intimacy, believing that a person with HIV is incapable of functional relationships without infecting their partner. In Africa, the implications are even more harsh. Often believed to be a “curse from God,” many regions exile an infected person from their community.

Worse, the stigma does not stop with individuals. It bleeds into the legal, political, and economic arenas as well. This is true worldwide. Some places have prosecuted women for transmitting the virus to their child, or have prosecuted individuals for not disclosing their positive status even if they have reached an undetectable viral load through antiretroviral therapy (ART). The discrimination surrounding a positive diagnosis is cited as the primary hurdle in addressing prevention and care. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Three Sexually Transmitted Bugs That Will Fascinate and Intrigue You

From creepy crawly pubic lice, which can be seen with a magnifying glass, to minuscule human papillomaviruses, which can be seen with some of the most expensive microscopes in the world, there are many tiny pathogens that we can acquire through sexual contact. And, despite their diminutive sizes, some of them work in complicated ways, or tell stories about our origins that would blow you away. Let’s learn some amazing facts about three sexually transmitted bugs!

Phthirus pubis, the louse that causes scabies. Image from the Public Health Image Library.

Image: Public Health Image Library

Pubic lice: tiny insects that live in pubic hair

Fans of Charles Darwin might like learning about pubic lice, which offer clues about human evolution. While other apes’ bodies are habitat to only one species of louse, human bodies can host three different types of louse: head lice and the closely related body lice, as well as the distantly related pubic lice.

It is thought that when early humans lost their body hair, human lice followed this receding hairline and migrated to their heads to become head lice. At a later date, the gorilla louse colonized early humans’ pubic regions. Since pubic lice can be transmitted by infested bedding, one idea is that an early human caught pubic lice by sleeping in a burrow that had been recently vacated by a lice-ridden gorilla — no sexual contact required.

By examining the number of differences in the genetic codes of the modern gorilla louse and the human pubic louse, we can place their divergence into two separate species at about 3 million years ago, suggesting that our human ancestors lost their body hair at around that time.

A quite frankly weird fact about pubic lice involves the method their young use to hatch from their eggs — by releasing so much gas that the increase in air pressure causes them to burst from their shell. So there’s that. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Three Sexually Transmitted Bacteria That Will Shock and Amaze You

It’s hard to appreciate a pubic louse as an intriguing creature in its own right. Not when an infestation with pubic lice is such a vexing experience. The same can be said for the germs that cause any number of human diseases. But, just as you might have marveled at the microorganisms you spied under the microscope in your high school biology class, the bacteria and other microbes that cause sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) can be fascinating, strictly as scientific subjects.

Let’s look at a few of these fascinating bacteria!

Treponema pallidum, the causative agent of syphilis, is seen in this electron micrograph adhering to a surface with the tapered end of its structure. Image obtained from the CDC’s Public Health Image Library.

Image: Public Health Image Library, CDC

Treponema pallidum: the bacteria that cause syphilis

Before the age of antibiotics, syphilis was the most feared STD out there. Untreated, it can cause serious, sometimes fatal, damage to the body, and can also spread to a fetus during pregnancy. But did you know that earlier versions of syphilis might have been even worse?

Written records of syphilis date back to 1495 when it seemed to appear in Europe for the first time. According to a 1519 description, it caused

Boils that stood out like Acorns, from whence issued such filthy stinking Matter, that whosoever came within the Scent, believed himself infected. The Colour of these was of a dark Green and the very Aspect as shocking as the pain itself, which yet was as if the Sick had laid upon a fire.

Interestingly, such descriptions don’t match modern forms of syphilis, which suggests that it might have evolved into a less virulent form, possibly in response to selective pressure against symptoms that render the host sexually unappealing. Basically, that means that someone with boils emitting “filthy stinking Matter” might have trouble find sexual partners; the pustules of yore don’t seem to decorate the epidermis of contemporary sufferers, making them more likely to perpetuate milder forms of syphilis through sexual transmission.

We can’t hop into a time machine and take samples from European syphilitics in 1495, but some biologists believe that it took about 50 years for evolution to work its mojo on the disease, giving rise to the milder Syphilis 2.0 in the mid-1500s. Continue reading