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

The Best of 2014: Our Bloggers Pick Their Favorite Posts

The year 2014 was a big one here at the blog — we published 146 new pieces, many of which educated our readers about our endorsed candidates during the midterm elections. In addition to energizing voters, we fostered health literacy with our pieces about sexual, reproductive, and preventive health care, and promoted social justice causes with articles on women’s and LGBTQ rights. Below, we share our bloggers’ best pieces from 2014!

kidsCare joined our blogging team this year, and hit the ground running with two consecutive posts about her experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Western Africa. In August, she observed National Immunization Awareness Month with a reflection on the importance of vaccination — both in the developing world and here in the United States. During her time in the Peace Corps, Care saw the devastation that diseases like measles, meningitis, and chickenpox wrought in the communities she served. Access to vaccines was not taken for granted in Western Africa — it was seen as a matter of life or death. Later, when Care returned to the United States — where many of us do take this access for granted — she discovered first-hand what happens in states with high vaccination-refusal rates. So if you don’t think skipping shots is a big deal, think again!

pillflag thumbnailMatt’s posts tackled a lot of topics this year, but in light of last month’s less-than-stellar election results, we’d like to shine the spotlight on his post from last June, Six Things Arizona Is Doing Right. Across the state, communities are recognizing the importance of comprehensive sex education, affirming transgender rights, promoting body acceptance, and fighting against domestic violence! So if Arizona politics have been bumming you out lately, read about six things we’re doing right, from the Capitol to the Pascua Yaqui Nation, and from Tempe to Tucson!

zombies thumbnailAnna focused mostly on sexually transmitted diseases this year, but one of her favorite posts was an evaluation of different birth control methods’ suitability during the zombie apocalypse. Maybe if more female writers were hired in Hollywood, “minutiae” like family planning would be addressed in zombie-filled scripts and screenplays. But instead, the female characters that populate these narratives don’t seem overly worried about unintended pregnancies (and somehow find the time and the supplies for the removal of their underarm hair). Until our zombie dramas are more realistic in their handling of women’s issues, be prepared for the worst and read Anna’s assessment of your best bets for birth control. (Her pick for the apocalypse, by the way, is the implant!)

afghan girlRachel observed the International Day of the Girl Child in October by focusing on sexual violence against girls. Unsurprisingly, this problem can be found in every corner of the earth, and Rachel discusses atrocities in both the developing world and in industrialized nations. Despite deep-seated misogyny that permeates many cultures, positive changes are made possible by the work of activists, from young girls risking their lives fighting for the right to education in Pakistan, to advocates lobbying to strengthen penalties for convicted rapists, as in the case of Audrie’s Law, signed by California’s governor last October. Rachel’s provocative, disturbing, and informative post asks us if empowering girls is good enough — or if we also need to address the root of the problem, which lies with the perpetrators and their enablers.

clinic escortsStacey, a former clinic escort, helped our patients for more than a year, and in March she drew from that experience in an incredibly powerful piece on the importance of protecting the buffer zone, the distance that anti-abortion protesters were made to keep between themselves and patients. The buffer zone was one of the tools we used to protect our patients’ dignity and safety. It was no surprise, then, that the buffer zone came under attack this year when it was challenged in front of the Supreme Court. What did come as a surprise to many reproductive-justice advocates, however, was the highest court’s unanimous decision to strike down buffer zones for protesters at abortion clinics, helping to make 2014 a dismal year in women’s rights.

Gay Liberation Front 1969Marcy’s post on the Stonewall Riots broke traffic records on our blog — not bad for one of our newest bloggers — so if you missed it the first time around, check it out now. Forty-five years ago, the modern LGBTQ movement was born as the patrons of a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn rose up against police. The LGBTQ population was often a target for harassment by police, and the Stonewall Riots turned that violence back on their oppressors. We now celebrate Pride every June in honor of the Stonewall Riots, and while our society has made tremendous gains over the past 45 years, we still have a lot of work to do. Learn about the riots themselves, as well as the current state of LGBTQ rights in the United States.

two women thumbnailMichelle is another new blogger, and her inaugural post discussed a gynecological disorder called PCOS, or polycystic ovarian syndrome. PCOS is characterized by a constellation of symptoms that can include irregular periods, weight gain, sluggishness, thinning hair, depression, acne, infertility, and ovarian cysts. It affects an estimated 5 million Americans, but it’s thought to be underdiagnosed and its symptoms are largely stigmatized. Michelle lays out an interesting case for how this stigma might contribute to doctors failing to recognize it: It’s easier to blame someone’s dietary choices or physical-activity levels for weight gain and fatigue, rather than look more closely at underlying physiological problems, such as hormone imbalances, that could actually be causing the sufferers’ symptoms. For Michelle, awareness is key, so check out her informative post!

NOW thumbnailTori taught us about the Scheidler v. NOW “trilogy” of Supreme Court cases, which pitted anti-abortion activist Joseph Scheidler against feminist advocacy group National Organization for Women. In case you’re scratching your head, wondering what the heck Scheidler v. NOW is and why it’s important, check out Tori’s fantastic summary of this series of cases. She describes the atmosphere of violence that increasingly characterized the anti-abortion movement throughout the 1980s, eventually giving rise to a lawsuit, filed by NOW, claiming that abortion protesters’ tactics qualified as extortion under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Now that the Supreme Court has struck down buffer zones, the anti-abortion movement’s history of harassment, vandalism, and violence is more relevant than ever.

SILCS_diaphragm thumbnailRebecca is a pharmacist who brings her passion for reproductive autonomy into focus with her series of posts on contraceptive methods. In August, she informed us about a one-size-fits-most, over-the-counter diaphragm that should hit U.S. pharmacies in 2015. Although it might kick off a resurgence in the diaphragm’s popularity in the industrialized world, it was actually developed to make effective contraception more accessible in developing countries. As Rebecca told us, we Americans are very privileged to have access to such a wide range of contraceptive options — but it’s important to remember that the variety of choices we enjoy isn’t available to everyone, who might face cultural, financial, or logistical barriers when it comes to having the means to control their fertility. Check out Rebecca’s post about Caya, the next generation of diaphragms, coming to a pharmacy near you but helping women worldwide!

It’s August: A Time to Be Aware of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases

Image: Kona Gallagher

There are many simple things we can do to protect our children. Image: Kona Gallagher

August is National Immunization Awareness Month. The importance of vaccination is becoming a bigger issue every year, as 2014 has seen the highest number of measles cases reported since 2000. That is scary.

Too many people think that diseases like measles, mumps, whooping cough, and chickenpox are “normal childhood illnesses,” and that their kid’s immune system is strong enough to fight off these diseases. Too many people have forgotten what it was like before vaccines were commonplace. Too many people don’t stop to think about the long-term consequences of not vaccinating. Not just for them, but for those around them. Even for people they have never met.


When people tell me measles isn’t a big deal, I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach.


I am one of those people you have never met.

My story starts before I was even born. My older brother was given the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine. He was one of the small percentage of recipients that had a bad reaction. So when I was born, they skipped giving it to me. Not to worry, herd immunity would protect me — at least that’s what my doctor said.  Continue reading

Is Pap Testing Better Than HPV Vaccination?

Good news: The decision to be vaccinated for HPV or receive regular Pap testing isn't either/or. Image: Andy Newson

Good news: The decision to be vaccinated for HPV or receive regular Pap testing isn’t either/or. Image: Andy Newson

It’s January, which means that it’s Cervical Health Awareness Month! If you have a cervix, there are two big things you can do to protect its health: get vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV) before becoming sexually active, and receive regular Pap testing after becoming sexually active. When you take both of these steps, you can maximize what modern medicine has to offer. However, some people think you can just do one and ignore the other. Are they right?

You’ve probably heard of HPV, which causes genital warts and certain cancers. This virus has the dubious honor of being the most common sexually transmitted pathogen — some call it “the common cold of STDs.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “HPV is so common that nearly all sexually-active men and women get it at some point in their lives. This is true even for people who only have sex with one person in their lifetime.”


HPV isn’t just the “cervical cancer virus” — it’s a jack of all trades that can trigger cellular abnormalities all over the body.


One of the cancers most commonly caused by HPV is cervical cancer. In fact, when Gardasil, the most popular HPV vaccine in the United States, made its debut, it was marketed as a “cervical cancer vaccine,” despite the fact that HPV can cause other types of cancer. Nevertheless, a vaccine that could protect against such a common and potentially dangerous virus was good news indeed. However, some critics were quick to point out that cervical cancer is rare in the United States, thanks to widespread access to Pap testing, an effective screening procedure that can catch cellular abnormalities when they are still in their “precancerous” stages, allowing them to be treated before progressing to cancer.

For those of us planning to receive regular Pap testing, is vaccination really necessary? Likewise, if we’ve been vaccinated against HPV, do we really need regular Pap tests? Let’s examine both questions separately. Continue reading

Gardasil and Mortality

womenVaccination is one of public health’s greatest achievements, but today’s sociopolitical climate promotes unfounded fears. In turn, this fear-mongering has led to outbreaks of otherwise rare infectious diseases, such as measles and whooping cough. Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines protect against two HPV strains that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers, which itself is the second-most common type of cancer in women worldwide. Immunization has the potential to eliminate these viral strains, which would save lives and reduce health care costs — but, unfortunately, vaccine horror stories are a dime a dozen on the Internet, and HPV vaccines like Gardasil are popular targets for vaccine opponents.


Of 57 million Gardasil doses given in the United States, 40 confirmed deaths have occurred in recipients. However, these deaths were not caused by vaccination.


There are many claims flying around that Gardasil causes serious side effects, including death. However, claims that Gardasil can lead to death aren’t supported by good evidence. Generally speaking, people who make these accusations obtain their information from a publicly accessible database called the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), which collects claims of adverse events from anyone — including health care providers, patients, or family members.

What is an adverse event?

Most people don’t realize that the phrase “adverse event” cannot be used interchangeably with the term “side effect.” An adverse event is something that occurs after a vaccination — such as a headache, seizure, depression, or death. It could happen one second after being injected with a vaccine or more than a year afterward. It could be a coincidence, or it might be caused by vaccination. For example, if two weeks after receiving a flu shot I get a headache, I could legitimately claim it is an “adverse event,” even if my headache had nothing to do with the shot. An adverse event is only called a side effect if it is found to have been caused by vaccination.

What is VAERS?

Despite its occasional misrepresentation in print media, social media, and the blogosphere, VAERS is not a source of information about verified side effects — it is a database of adverse events that have been self-reported by the public. Anyone can submit a report to VAERS — heck, I could claim that the flu shot gave me telekinetic powers in addition to that headache, and it would be recorded in the database. That doesn’t mean that you should worry about coming down with a nasty case of telekinesis after getting a flu shot at the corner drug store. Continue reading

Gardasil and Fertility

girlsThere is currently a lot of fear about vaccines out there, and if you pay attention to the news, you’ve probably caught a whiff of it. This panic was launched by a 1998 Lancet article authored by Andrew Wakefield, who claimed that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Much ink was spilled unpacking that fiasco, but, in a nutshell, Wakefield falsified data and conducted unethical, invasive procedures on children, and was consequently stripped of his medical license. Researchers couldn’t duplicate his findings, The Lancet retracted his article, and Wakefield was thoroughly discredited.


One case report asserting a link between Gardasil and premature ovarian failure was authored by an anti-abortion activist.


But vaccine fears still linger. For example, there are some scary stories floating around about Gardasil, the vaccine that protects against the four most common strains of human papillomavirus (HPV), the sexually transmitted virus that can cause genital warts or certain types of cancer. These stories include claims that it has caused premature ovarian failure leading to infertility. About 57 million doses of HPV vaccines have been given in the United States, however, and in such a large group there are going to be some unexplained phenomena. Without good evidence, we can’t jump to the conclusion that a vaccine caused them.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most common Gardasil side effects are fainting; dizziness; nausea; headache; fever; hives; and pain, redness, or swelling at the injection site. These reactions aren’t considered to be serious, most people don’t experience any of them, and they’re only temporary. However, while surfing the Internet or scrolling through your Facebook wall, you might have come across claims that Gardasil causes infertility — specifically, premature ovarian failure in girls and young women. What should you make of these horror stories?

A couple of medical journals have described unexplained ovarian failure in four patients who also received HPV vaccines. Medical journals publish many kinds of articles, and a “case report” is a description of one or a few patients’ experiences. Unlike an article that summarizes the results of a rigorous scientific study involving hundreds or thousands of subjects, a case report might just highlight an unusual situation. They aren’t considered to be sources of “definitive” statements about much of anything. Nevertheless, in 90 percent of patients with premature ovarian failure, doctors can’t find clear genetic or physiological causes for the condition, making it an interesting topic for a medical journal to cover — and ripe for speculation. Continue reading

Arm Yourself Against Genital Warts and Cancer!

RosieVaccineBWVaccines are pretty nifty: Injecting a few tiny particles stimulates your immune system to build antibodies, which can bind to and help destroy harmful pathogens. A well-oiled immune system can neutralize these invaders before they have a chance to make you sick! In the war against infectious disease, we should be boosting our immune systems at every opportunity, and vaccines are one of the best weapons in our arsenal.

You’ve probably heard of HPV, or human papillomavirus, which causes genital warts and certain cancers. HPV has the dubious honor of being the most common sexually transmitted pathogen — some call it “the common cold of STDs.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “HPV is so common that nearly all sexually-active men and women get it at some point in their lives. This is true even for people who only have sex with one person in their lifetime.”


You might not know how easy it is to contract HPV — vaccination allows you to take charge of your health.


There are many strains of HPV. “Low-risk” strains can cause genital warts, which aren’t usually harmful but might be upsetting. “High-risk” strains can cause cancers of the cervix, anus, vagina, vulva, penis, mouth, and throat. The good news is that a vaccine called Gardasil protects against HPV-6 and HPV-11, which cause 90 percent of genital warts, and HPV-16 and HPV-18, which cause 70 percent of cervical cancers and 90 percent of anal cancers.

With protection available against a common virus that can cause upsetting warts or fatal cancer, you’d think that everyone would be lining up for Gardasil shots — but, unfortunately, vaccination rates are very low in the United States. Many of us opt out of vaccination for ourselves or our children because we don’t realize how easily HPV is acquired, or we minimize its potential to harm.

HPV is easier to contract than you might think, so if you think the risk is too small to outweigh other justifications against immunization, read on — you might not be aware of just how easy it is to acquire this wily virus. Vaccination is an empowering option for those of us who want to do all we can to take our health into our own hands. And, by being immunized, we can play a role in driving cancer-causing viruses into extinction, which would be feasible with sufficiently improved vaccination rates. Continue reading