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

Women Fighting for Everyone’s Health

Happy Women’s History Month! Throughout the history of medicine, the health of women and children hasn’t always been prioritized. Safeguards might not have been in place to ensure drugs were safe during pregnancy, the right to abortion care has been under attack by both terrorists and lawmakers, and people haven’t had the tools they needed to prevent pregnancy. But throughout that same history, women have confronted these issues head on, creating a better world for everyone and keeping important conversations alive.

Let’s meet some of these incredible historical figures now!

Frances Oldham Kelsey

President Kennedy honors Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey with the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service in 1962.

In 1960, Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey was evaluating drug applications for the FDA. When she received an application for a sleeping pill called Kevadon, she was unsettled by scant information on the drug’s safety and demanded additional data, triggering a game of tug-of-war between the pharmaceutical company and the FDA that persisted for more than a year.

In November 1961, Dr. Kelsey was vindicated. Kevadon — aka thalidomide — was discovered to cause severe birth defects. According to the New York Times, children “were born without arms or legs, some with no limbs or with withered appendages protruding directly from the trunk. Some had no external ears or deformities of the eyes, the esophagus or intestinal tracts.” One estimate holds that 20,000 babies were born with deformities, while 80,000 died during pregnancy or shortly after birth. But, thanks to Dr. Kelsey, thalidomide was never approved in the United States.

Frances Kelsey’s career might have been made possible by a misunderstanding. Her graduate advisor at the University of Chicago wasn’t a big booster of women in science, but he hired her after reading her name as Francis and assuming she was a man. Dr. Kelsey always wondered, “if my name had been Elizabeth or Mary Jane, whether I would have gotten that first big step up.” At the time, though, she wondered if she should even accept the offer to join the University of Chicago as a grad student.

“When a woman took a job in those days, she was made to feel as if she was depriving a man of the ability to support his wife and child,” Dr. Kelsey told the New York Times in 2010. Fortunately for an untold number of wives and children — and everyone else — she decided to claim her rightful place at the university, leaving behind an incredible legacy.

Sherri Finkbine

The Finkbines traveling back to Phoenix, en route from London.

Sherri Finkbine was known to thousands of children as Miss Sherri on the local edition of the children’s show Romper Room. But Finkbine entered the spotlight for another reason in 1962, when she learned during her fifth pregnancy that she was at risk of having a child with severe birth defects. Finkbine was using sleeping pills that her husband had brought back from Europe, and the pills, she found out, contained thalidomide. Wishing to warn others about the drug, Finkbine shared her story with a reporter from the Arizona Republic.

Though she had been promised anonymity, her identity was exposed and her story created a media firestorm. Continue reading

Women Harnessing the Law

Happy Women’s History Month! Throughout this country’s history, the law hasn’t been consistently fair across gender lines, classifying women as second-class citizens and making assumptions about people based on gender stereotypes. But throughout that same history, women have harnessed the law to right these wrongs, changing the national conversation around issues as varied as medical privacy, marriage, caring for family members, and sexual harassment.

Let’s meet some of these trailblazers now!

Estelle Griswold

Estelle Griswold, left, and Cornelia Jahncke, of Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, celebrate their Supreme Court victory.

The birth control pill came onto the market in 1960, but in Connecticut, contraception was outright banned by a law that predated the birth of the Pill by more than 80 years, imposing fines and jail time on people using any type of contraceptive device. Additionally, anyone “aiding and abetting” would-be birth-control users — including doctors and pharmacists — could be punished.

In 1961, in an act of civil disobedience, Estelle Griswold, the executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, opened a birth control clinic — and was promptly arrested, prosecuted, and fined $100. Griswold immediately challenged the constitutionality of Connecticut’s anti-contraception law, but it was upheld in state courts. In 1965, however, the Supreme Court ruled that married couples had a constitutional right to make private decisions about contraception.

Griswold v. Connecticut was a landmark case in contraception access — but it was only a first step. In restricting its ruling to married couples, the Supreme Court perpetuated the idea that birth control was only appropriate within the confines of marriage. It wasn’t until 1972 that the Supreme Court ruled that unmarried people, too, had a right to birth control.

Mildred Loving

Richard and Mildred Loving

Bettmann/Corbis via New York Times

Richard Loving was white and Mildred Jeter was black. In 1958, the couple obtained a marriage certificate in Washington D.C., and were jailed for violating Virginia code 20-54, which prohibited marriages between “white and colored persons,” and code 20-58, which prohibited couples from marrying out of state and returning to Virginia to reside as husband and wife.

The Lovings pleaded guilty and were banished from the state, forcing the couple to leave their families and home behind. A series of court battles culminated in the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1967 decision that Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage violated the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause. 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

Why Periods? False Hopes, Popes, and the “Grandfathered” Withdrawal Bleed

The birth control pill and other hormonal contraception are popular. Menstrual periods are not. Hormonal contraception can be used to suppress menstruation — so why isn’t this method, called “continuous contraception,” more popular?

For decades, packets of birth control pills have typically contained 21 “active” pills and seven “placebo” pills. These placebos — sugar pills — trigger bleeding (which most people think of as a menstrual period, even though it’s technically called a withdrawal bleed). Because menstruation is natural, some people think this withdrawal bleed must somehow be healthier. But there are actually no health benefits — and it might also increase risk for pregnancy.


There is no reason to have a period when on the birth control pill — unless you want one.


Last month, British medical guidelines were revised to recommend continuous use of the birth control pill — that is, with no week-long “break” designed to trigger a withdrawal bleed. We could have been skipping our periods since the Pill was introduced in 1960 — so why is it only now that we are coming to see them as optional?

A flurry of recent articles has touted a rather conspiratorial claim: that the monthly bleed was included in an attempt to make the Pill more palatable to the pope. The Telegraph quoted reproductive health expert John Guillebaud: “John Rock devised [the week of placebo pills] because he hoped that the pope would accept the Pill and make it acceptable for Catholics to use. Rock thought if it did imitate the natural cycle then the pope would accept it.”

Many journalists, pundits, and bloggers have expressed outrage that we’ve been putting up with decades of unnecessary bleeding (and all the attendant pain, headaches, and missed work) just because of an unsuccessful attempt to appease the pope before most women of reproductive age were even born. But the history of the placebo week is more complicated. Continue reading

The Price of Inaction on LGTBQ Homelessness

Infographic on the polar vortex. Image: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

When the polar vortex hit the U.S. last month, sending temperatures down to record lows that hadn’t been seen in a generation, I was in my own vortex of thoughts and reactions. I felt a guilty pleasure at the warm weather we were enjoying here in Arizona. I groaned when President Trump, instead of expressing concern for the millions who would face below-freezing temperatures, seized the opportunity to tweet his doubts about “Global Waming (sic),” even though five seconds on Google could easily explain how extreme weather, both hot and cold, fits within the projections of climate change science.


A comprehensive look at homelessness examines laws and public policies that put many LGBTQ people on the streets.


I also resented the online trolls I’d encountered months before, when a caravan of asylum seekers was approaching our border, who argued that we should take care of our own homeless people before we let in any more immigrants. It was a cynical framing, that we could only care for one or the other — and where were their concerns for the homeless now, when people on the streets throughout the Midwest and parts of the Northeast were at risk of dying from exposure? With wind chill reaching 75 below in some places, the cold hit levels that could cause frostbite within minutes, in addition to hypothermia and difficulty breathing.

A lot of those trolls, I remembered, had mentioned homeless veterans in particular, to the exclusion of other homeless people. It added another layer of cynicism. If they cast their compassion too broadly, they might have to reconcile it with notions that blame the poor for their own poverty, as if shortcomings in work ethic or financial planning are the only culprits, and inherited wealth, the vagaries of the economy, and other factors play no role in where the chips fall for each of us.

There are other uncomfortable facts people push aside if they avoid taking a broader, more comprehensive look at homelessness. One glaring example is the collective responsibility for laws and public policies that put many LGBTQ people on the streets. Continue reading

Kaity’s Story Leads to the Formation of P.E.A.C.E.

The following guest post comes to us from Bobbi Sudberry, mother to Kaitlyn Marie Sudberry and founder of Kaity’s Way, a Phoenix-based nonprofit with the mission to advocate for healthy teen relationships by providing education, skills, and tools to youth and their allies.

Kaitlyn Marie Sudberry was a beautiful, vivacious, artistically talented young lady. Her ambition was to make the world a better place; however, her goal was cut short when she became the victim of an ex-boyfriend’s rage. She was not alone. While February is National Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, teen dating violence, like domestic violence, happens every day of the year. It is a global issue. And you can help! Did you know that 81 percent of parents admit they had no idea their teen was experiencing dating violence? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Psychological Association acknowledge intimate partner violence among teens is very prevalent and should not be ignored. The Sudberrys and Kaity’s Way strive to help prevent others from experiencing a similar loss through P.E.A.C.E. — Patience, Empathy, Acceptance, Caring, Equality.

Kaity’s Story

On Monday, January 28, 2008, our lives were shattered, literally obliterated. What we knew as normal no longer existed after we heard the devastating news that afternoon. One of our children, our 17-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn “Kaity” Marie Sudberry, had been murdered by her ex-boyfriend not more than 100 feet from our front door. That morning when we exchanged I love yous, how was I to know that it would be the last time I would hear those words from her?


Our children want and need education on teen dating violence.


Kaity was a sweet, fun-loving girl who had her whole life ahead of her. She was a high-school senior, and she had been accepted to Northern Arizona University to study wildlife sciences. She loved nature, animals, gardening, vacationing, family time, sports, music, art — and she loved trying new things. She was my shopping, football, and gardening buddy. Why is she not here doing those things with me today?

She was 16 years old when she met Daniel Byrd at school. They became friends, and then started dating. She brought him home to meet my husband and me. He was very polite and mannerly and held a good conversation with us. He said he liked Moon Valley High School and was on target to graduate. He told us a little bit about his family. He seemed like a very nice young man. He appeared to treat Kaity very well. They did the usual things that teens do when dating. They went to the movies, walked to and from school together, hung out with friends. It appeared to be a normal, healthy teenage dating relationship. Continue reading