Some Good News About Three Sexually Transmitted Viruses

Scientists are hard at work finding ways to improve your health!

With so much bad news emblazoned across headlines in every newspaper you look at, the world might seem like a gloomy place. So let’s take one depressing subject — disease — and peel away the sad outer layer to find silver linings of optimism.

When it comes to infections, a lot of us blame one thing: germs, also known as “bugs” — “pathogens” if we’re fancy. Some people might not think of infectious diseases as being that big of a deal — after a round of antibiotics, you’ll be on the mend. Unfortunately, antibiotics only work for bacteria, but a lot of diseases are caused by other types of germs — for which antibiotics are no match. One type of germ is called a virus, and they can’t be cured. Sometimes they can be prevented with vaccines or treated with drugs. For example, the major strains of human papillomavirus (HPV) can be prevented with a vaccine called Gardasil, herpes simplex virus can be suppressed with antiviral drugs, and HIV can be controlled with antiretroviral drugs — but none of these infections can be cured. HPV is usually defeated by the immune system, but herpes and HIV are with you for life.

But it’s not all bad. Around the world, individual scientists have picked their “favorite” viruses and are devoting their lives to finding better prevention strategies, better treatments, and even cures. Let’s check in with some of the latest headlines touting the successes of science.

New Hope for a Herpes Vaccine

A herpes vaccine would be a blockbuster — given how common this sexually transmitted infection is, a preventive shot could help a lot of couples discuss their herpes status without as much fear of judgment and stigma.

Herpes might cause an “outbreak” — unpleasant symptoms that include genital sores — but afterward the virus goes dormant in the nerve cells, hiding from the immune system. In some people, the virus can come out of its dormancy to cause flare-ups of symptoms, but once it’s had its fun it retreats back to the nerve cells.

Earlier this year, media reported on a promising new candidate for a herpes vaccine. Using a completely different strategy than previous, failed herpes vaccines, the researchers behind this breakthrough targeted the part of the virus that allows it to hide from our immune systems. If this vaccine works as hoped, recipients will be able to mount an immune defense when exposed to the virus, blocking it from establishing a permanent home in nerve cells. It might even suppress outbreaks in people who already have herpes. Continue reading

Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

Remember the bill the 45th President signed last month giving states the right to withhold federal Title X funds for family planning services from clinics that also provide abortions? Well, that wasn’t going to affect the state of Arizona because our state does not directly distribute funds to health-care providers. Title X funds have long been distributed by the Arizona Family Health Partnership and they never discriminated based on whether or not a provider performed abortions.

WELP, GUESS WHAT? The despicable, forced-birth advocates in our Legislature (the House and the Senate — NOT A COINCIDENCE but a coordinated attack!) launched bills last week seeking to change who controls the distribution of Title X finds. They want that money now to be distributed by the Arizona Department of Health Services — a state-run entity that is prohibited from contracting with health-care providers who perform abortions.

Again, the timing of this is not a coincidence and this is a GOP-coordinated attack on Planned Parenthood and clinics that provide abortions.

  • Now that No. 45 has given other states the right to withhold those funds from us, Arizona wants in. (Phoenix New Times)
  • Obviously poor women and women in rural areas are going to suffer as a result if these harmful bills pass. (AZ Central)
  • By nominating Charmaine Yoest to be assistant secretary for public affairs of the Department of Health and Human Services, No. 45 continues his administration’s coordinated effort to destroy reproductive health care. Ms. Yoest has personally had a hand in harmful legislation nationwide to restrict women’s access to abortion. She has publicized the lie that abortion raises the risk of breast cancer. This is not rooted in science. She is a dangerous zealot and fear-monger hoping to scare women out of making a medically sound decision about their bodies. This is scary. (Rewire)
  • To all my friends in Blue states: If Trumpcare passes, it’s going to jack up your lives, too! (Slate)
  • Why does the GOP want to make women pay more for health insurance? I’m sure misogyny has nothing to do with it! (NY Mag)
  • Are Republicans accidentally paving the way for single-payer health care? Let’s hope so. (WaPo)
  • Bernie Sanders and Tom Perez, the de facto “leaders” of the Democratic party, threw women under the bus. (NY Mag)
  • Alabama Governor Signs Law Allowing Faith-Based Adoption Agencies to Bar Gay Couples From Adopting. I could find no evidence that he himself has adopted any children. Apparently his concern for them is limited to keeping them out of potentially loving homes based on whom their parents have consensual sex with. Seems legit. #NOT (Slate)
  • From the looks of HB 3859, Texas is on board with this practice as well. This terrible bill would allow state contractors who provide child welfare services to discriminate against qualified same-sex couples who want to adopt. (HRC)
  • Actually, it’s even worse than that. While Texas foster kids — including LGBTQ foster kids who got kicked out of their homes of origin — are being “protected” from same-sex foster parents, they’re also being “protected” from vaccinations. (The Stranger)
  • Nancy Pelosi says abortion is “fading” as an issue for Democrats. The opposite is true for conservatives. (WaPo)
  • Trump’s Annual Child-Care Tax Break Would Give Average American Families Less Than $20. Try not to spend it all in one place! (Slate)
  • A piece of good news … A bill that could ban conversion therapy nationwide could be passed. YES! (WaPo)
  • In the United States, black women are three to four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related causes. It’s worse in places like New York City, where black women are 12 times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related causes. Rewire asks, “Could Increasing the Number of Black Health-Care Providers Fix Our Maternal Health Problem?” (Rewire)

STD Awareness: Is There a Vaccine for Syphilis?

Before antibiotics, syphilis was the most feared sexually transmitted disease (STD) out there. It was easy to get, quack cures were ineffective and often unpleasant, and it could lead to blindness, disfigurement, dementia, and even death. Syphilis rates were highest during World War II, and plummeted when penicillin became widely available later in the 1940s. By 2000, syphilis rates hit an all-time low, and many scientists thought the United States was at the dawn of the complete elimination of syphilis.

What a difference an antibiotic makes. Image: CDC

Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that syphilis wasn’t ready to go out without a fight. Since 2000, syphilis rates have nearly quadrupled, climbing from 2.1 to 7.5 per 100,000 people by 2015 — the highest they have been since 1994. If you look at the above graph, you might think syphilis rates have been pretty stable over the past 20 years — but if you zoom in, the fact that we’re in the midst of an epidemic becomes more clear.

After hitting an all-time low in 2000, syphilis rates have been increasing nearly every year since.

The epidemic is disproportionately affecting men who have sex with men (MSM), with Arizona seeing a higher-than-average syphilis rate in this group. Additionally, syphilis rates are climbing among women, who have seen a 27 percent bump between 2014 and 2015. And, since women can carry both syphilis and pregnancies, a rise in syphilis in this population also means a rise congenital syphilis (the transmission of syphilis from mother to fetus), which causes miscarriages, stillbirths, preterm births, neonatal death, and birth defects. Ocular syphilis — that is, syphilis infections that spread to the eyes and can lead to blindness — is also on the rise.

Men, women, babies — no one is immune to the grasp of syphilis. Continue reading

Why Do Newborns Need the Hepatitis B Vaccine?

The first vaccine a baby receives — within hours or days of birth — protects them from hepatitis B virus (HBV). In a lot of people’s minds, HBV is associated with drug use and sexual activity — which stigmatizes people who have been infected with HBV or are carriers of the virus. Unfortunately, this stigma causes a lot of people to question why babies even need to be vaccinated against it, often pointing to “Big Pharma” conspiracy theories. A lot of other people are put off by the misconception that the HBV vaccine is made with human blood (it’s not).


May is Hepatitis Awareness Month, a time to learn about a childhood vaccine that’s saved millions of lives.


There are perfectly good reasons to vaccinate babies against HBV, mainly that HBV is the leading cause of liver cancer, itself one of the Top 10 types of cancer worldwide. Nine out of 10 infants born to a mother who is an HBV carrier will develop chronic infections and become carriers themselves — and a quarter of them will die prematurely of liver disease. Babies who develop chronic HBV infections are 63 times more likely to develop liver cancer than non-carriers, a connection that is 2 to 3 times stronger than the link between smoking and lung cancer.

When it comes to HBV, age at infection matters. Most people with chronic HBV infections are exposed at birth or in early childhood, when they are most likely to develop chronic, lifelong infections — whereas only 2 to 6 percent of infected adults will develop chronic infections, with only 15 percent of them eventually dying from liver disease. The fact that chronic infection risk is inversely correlated with age at infection means that birth is the time when a child is the most vulnerable to this virus — hence the importance of vaccinating as early as possible. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

For the past decade, human papillomavirus, better known as HPV, has been a pretty consistent headline grabber. Formerly a little-discussed virus, HPV was catapulted into the public consciousness in 2006, when suddenly people were all aflutter about this cancer-causing sexually transmitted pathogen, as well as Gardasil, the three-shot vaccination series the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was recommending to preteen girls as protection from cervical cancer.


Kids 14 and younger develop such a strong immune response to Gardasil that they only need two doses — not three!


Dialogue has evolved since then, as people have recognized that HPV causes more than just cervical cancer — including anal cancer, head-and-neck cancer, and penile cancer — meaning that all children should be vaccinated, not just girls. And fears that the vaccine will “encourage” promiscuity still abound, despite thorough scientific debunking. In fact, many experts believe that our skittishness surrounding sexuality — especially when it comes to teenagers — causes parents to turn a blind eye to the importance of vaccinating their children against HPV. (Unvaccinated children might not appreciate their parents’ choice, if, say, a few years down the line they find a smattering of genital warts below their belts.)

Ongoing scientific research into Gardasil and the virus it protects against provides continuous fodder for journalists covering medical and scientific advances. Here are just a few of the most recent headlines featuring HPV:

Continue reading

Meet Our Candidates: Randall Friese for State Representative, LD 9

The Arizona primary election will be held on August 30, 2016. Reproductive health care access has been under attack, both nationally and statewide, but Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona has endorsed candidates who have shown strong commitment to reproductive justice. To acquaint you with our endorsed candidates, we are running a series called “Meet Our Candidates.” In order to vote in the primary election, you must register to vote by August 1 — and can even register online. Make your voice heard in 2016!

Dr. Randall Friese, a Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona repeat endorsee, represents Legislative District 9 in the Arizona House. The incumbent is one of three Democrats running in the primary for two LD 9 seats.

Dr. Friese, a trauma surgeon, helped save the life of then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, one of 18 people shot during a meet-and-greet with constituents outside a Tucson supermarket in 2011. The U.S. Navy veteran has said that he became interested in politics after the shooting.


“The Legislature has no role legislating medical practice for the care of an individual.”


Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona recommend LD 9 voters cast their ballots for both Rep. Friese and fellow incumbent Rep. Matt Kopec. Rep. Friese generously took the time to answer our questions on July 6, 2016.

Since we last spoke, how has your commitment to serving Arizona grown? What has happened during that time to give you hope, and what has happened to strengthen your convictions?

I remain fully committed to serving our state in the Legislature. I am running for reelection for a second term to build in the relationships and trust that I built with fellow Democrats as well as my Republican colleagues.

I believe that I can contribute significantly to the legislative process because of the experience I gained from my first term. I get hope for the future from the recent 5-3 U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating a Texas law limiting access to abortion. We have laws in Arizona similar to the ones struck down in Texas. We may be able to change these laws here in Arizona.  Continue reading

Hepatitis B Vaccine: The Importance of the Birth Dose

babiesDid you know that Saturday kicked off National Infant Immunization Week, which is part of a worldwide observance that shines the spotlight on the importance of vaccination? Most of us think of infant immunization as a tool to protect babies from childhood illnesses like chickenpox and whooping cough. But did you know that one infant immunization protects them from cancer later in life?

Globally, hepatitis B virus (HBV) is one of the top causes of cancer. Every year, it kills more than three-quarters of a million people worldwide. An HBV infection might be defeated by the immune system, but when it’s not, it can become a chronic infection. And chronic infections can lead to serious health outcomes, including cirrhosis and liver cancer. The younger you are, the less likely you’ll be able to fight off an HBV infection — 90 percent of infants infected with HBV will develop chronic infections, and 25 percent of them will go on to die prematurely after developing liver disease. Compare that to 2 to 6 percent of infected adults who will develop chronic infections.


Because infants are so vulnerable to developing chronic infections, vaccinating them against hepatitis B at birth makes sense.


Most people think of hepatitis as a bloodborne disease, and it is spread very efficiently when IV drug users share needles, during needle-stick accidents and other occupational injuries, or by using contaminated piercing needles, tattoo equipment, or acupuncture needles. Even sharing items like razors, toothbrushes, and nail clippers can do it, as the virus can survive outside of the human body for a week. HBV can also be spread by sexual contact, including vaginal and anal sex.

Lastly, babies and children can be at risk as the virus can be transmitted from mother to infant during birth, and during early childhood when risk of chronic infection is high. A significant number of people with chronic infections acquired them during early childhood, but we don’t know exactly how they got them, as their parents and other household contacts were negative for the virus or its antibodies. Since infants and children are at the highest risk for developing chronic infections, focusing on that population for prevention is very important.

Luckily, there’s a vaccine. Continue reading