STD Awareness: What Does “Congenital Syphilis” Mean?

Treponema pallidum, the bacteria that causes syphilis

Treponema pallidum, the bacteria that causes syphilis

Congenital syphilis, for centuries a leading cause of infant mortality, is often thought of as an antique affliction, relegated to history books — but it is on the rise again. Between 2012 and 2014, there was a spike in congenital syphilis rates, which increased by 38 percent and are now the highest they’ve been in the United States since 2001. As of 2014, the last year for which we have data, more babies were born with syphilis than with HIV.

The word “congenital” simply means that the baby was born with syphilis after being infected in the womb. When an expecting mother has syphilis, the bacteria that cause the disease can cross the placenta to infect the fetus — and will do so 70 percent of the time. As many as 40 percent of babies infected with syphilis during pregnancy will be stillborn or will die soon after birth. It can also cause rashes, bone deformities, severe anemia, jaundice, blindness, and deafness. Congenital syphilis is especially tragic because it’s almost completely preventable, especially when expecting mothers have access to adequate prenatal care and antibiotics. Penicillin is 98 percent effective in preventing congenital syphilis when it is administered at the appropriate time and at the correct dosage.


More babies are being born with syphilis — but this trend can be reversed with wider access to prenatal care.


Incidence of congenital syphilis is growing across all regions of the country, but rates are highest in the South, followed by the West. Rates have also been increasing across ethnic groups, but, compared to white mothers, congenital syphilis rates are more than 10 times higher among African-American mothers and more than 3 times higher among Latina mothers, illustrating the need to increase access to prenatal care for all expecting mothers — and to ensure that this prenatal care is adequate.

Anyone receiving prenatal care should be screened for syphilis at their first visit, and some pregnant people — including those at increased risk or in areas where congenital syphilis rates are high — should be screened a second time at the beginning of the third trimester and again at delivery. Continue reading

STD Awareness: June Is National Congenital Cytomegalovirus Awareness Month

CMVPop quiz: Can you name the virus that most commonly infects developing fetuses when they are still in the womb?

Here’s a hint: June is National Congenital Cytomegalovirus Awareness Month.

In case that clue didn’t make it obvious enough, I’ll tell you the answer. The most common infection among developing fetuses is caused by a virus you might not have heard of: cytomegalovirus, or CMV. Around 30,000 children are born with this infection every year, and some of these babies will go on to develop serious problems because of it. National Congenital Cytomegalovirus Awareness Month is a time to learn about how CMV can affect pregnancy.


Cytomegalovirus can damage developing brain cells early in an embryo’s gestation.


This year, it might be of even greater interest, given the parallels that can be drawn between CMV and Zika virus, the emerging pathogen that has been dominating headlines lately. First of all, both CMV and Zika virus can be transmitted sexually, though they are not the first things you think of when the topic of STDs comes up, as they are overshadowed by more famous sexually transmitted viruses like herpes and human papillomavirus. While many of us are infected with CMV as children, we can also be infected as adults, often through sexual transmission — the virus can be found in cervical and vaginal secretions, saliva, and semen. The sexual transmission of Zika virus is not as well understood, but we know it can be found in semen, and there are documented cases of men passing the virus to sex partners through vaginal and anal intercourse. It might even be transmitted from a male to a partner by oral sex.

Second of all, both CMV and Zika virus are associated with birth defects. However, while the connection between CMV and birth defects has been known to us for decades, it was only in April that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that Zika virus can cause fetal brain defects (though we’re still waiting for conclusive proof). Microcephaly is probably the most infamous of the birth defects associated with Zika virus, as well as CMV, but it’s not well defined. When you get down to it, though, microcephaly just refers to an abnormally small head, which itself might be indicative of a brain that has failed to develop fully. Continue reading

May Is National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month

The following is a guest post by Planned Parenthood Arizona’s Director of Education Vicki Hadd-Wissler, M.A.

mother daughterAt Planned Parenthood Arizona, we hope families are talking about changing bodies, healthy relationships, love, and sex throughout the year, and with May’s National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, parents and the important adults in the lives of teens have a unique opportunity to talk with teens about pregnancy prevention. The month is aimed at helping teens to identify their plans for the future, and consider how those plans would be impacted by an unintended pregnancy.

Ongoing conversations between parents and teens build in protective factors. Studies have shown that teens who report having ongoing conversations with their parents about sex wait longer to begin having sex and are more likely to use condoms and other birth control methods when they eventually become sexually active. Even more surprising for many parents is that these studies also show that teens want to hear about what their parents have to say about sex and relationships.

Planned Parenthood Arizona can suggest some amazing resources to fit the needs of your family and to start dialogue with a teen you love. 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

Ten Things Your Mother Never Told You About Condoms

holding condomThere are so many claims made about condoms these days that it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. Perhaps you first heard some of these things from your mother, who sat you on her lap one day and calmly demonstrated proper use, with guidelines for when appropriate. Yeah, right. She probably would have spanked you for even mentioning the word. As for your dad, get real.

Like most of us, you probably first heard about condoms in the locker room or from your friends. Or you read something in a magazine or on social media. As a result, your poor head is filled with various myths, rumors, half-truths, and bad jokes, interspersed with a few actual facts. So, herewith are 10 more half-truths or untruths to add to your noggin.

1 Condoms have a high failure rate. According to one website, “18 couples out of 100 who say they use condoms as their primary contraception method will experience an unintended pregnancy in the first 12 months.” Of course, this includes folks out of this same 100 couples who happened not to be using a condom at the time they got pregnant (or during the whole time) — which greatly reduces a condom’s effectiveness — as well as those who were not using the condoms correctly when they got pregnant. (By the way, though this informative website refers to condomology as “the study of condoms,” starting a sentence with “condomologically speaking” is probably not a good idea.) The failure rate decreases substantially, however, when condoms are properly used: “If used correctly every time you have sex, male condoms are 98% effective. This means that two out of 100 women using male condoms as contraception will become pregnant in one year.” Continue reading

“Instrument of Torture”: The Dalkon Shield Disaster

This Dalkon Shield is archived at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum at Case Western Reserve University. Photo: Jamie Chung

This Dalkon Shield is archived at Case Western Reserve University. Photo: Jamie Chung

These days, IUDs, or intrauterine devices, have stellar reputations as highly effective contraceptives. Along with implants, IUDs can be more effective than permanent sterilization, and their safety record is fantastic. We also have powerful regulations in place to keep dangerous medical devices off the market, and the FTC can keep manufacturers from making false claims in advertising.

But a previous generation of birth-control users might associate IUDs with dangerous pelvic infections and miscarriages. That’s because a single device, called the Dalkon Shield, almost single-handedly destroyed an entire generation’s trust in IUDs. At the time of its debut, there were dozens of IUDs on the market — but the Dalkon Shield unfairly tainted the reputation of all of them. With no FDA or FTC regulations reining in untested devices or false advertising, women in the late 1960s and early 1970s didn’t enjoy the protections that we take for granted today. And it was actually the Dalkon Shield’s string, which was made with a material and by a method that hasn’t been used in IUDs before or since, that made it dangerous.


Today, IUDs are the most popular form of contraception among physicians wishing to avoid pregnancy.


We’ve known about IUDs for more than a century, and have made them out of ebony, ivory, glass, gold, pewter, wood, wool, and even diamond-studded platinum. These days, IUDs release hormones or spermicidal copper ions, but these older devices were simply objects inserted into the uterus that acted as irritants, possibly enlisting the immune system to kill sperm. They were not as effective as modern-day IUDs.

The Dalkon Shield was invented in 1968, was made primarily of plastic, and had “feet” — four or five on each side — to prevent expulsion. In 1970, after being marketed independently, it was sold to family-owned pharmaceutical giant A.H. Robins Company, of Robitussin fame. It was manufactured in the same factory where ChapStick was produced, and retailed for $4.35.

Dr. Hugh J. Davis, the Dalkon Shield’s primary inventor, claimed that users of his device had a 1.1 percent pregnancy rate — but that number was based on a small, methodologically flawed study conducted over eight months. In fact, the Dalkon Shield had a 5.5 percent failure rate over the course of a year. The fact that the Shield didn’t provide high protection against pregnancy was a huge problem, but its design also dramatically increased risk for pregnancy complications. Of the tens of thousands of users who became pregnant while wearing the Dalkon Shield, 60 percent of them had miscarriages. Continue reading

Shouting My Abortion

shout your abortionI’ve always been a T-shirt kind of guy, wearing my shirts to proclaim allegiance to everything from my favorite rock groups to science, humor, politics, and the organizations I support, one of which is Planned Parenthood. My collection currently includes four Planned Parenthood shirts, and I wear them proudly whenever I can. While some might view this as confrontational, I see it as a potential means to open up communication. Most of the time, people don’t even notice. Occasionally, though, someone will notice, as for instance when someone thanks me for wearing my shirt. So far, no one has vocally challenged me, but every once in a while I get one of those icy stares — the kind that bore straight through you. Even a stare has value, however, in that someone who may not support Planned Parenthood must still acknowledge the fact that here is someone who does — a male, no less. Besides, my wife thinks I look good in pink. How can I argue with that?


I would not want my body ever considered to be a mere vessel for childbirth, with fewer rights than the fetus within me.


When I saw a photo of my hero Gloria Steinem wearing an “I Had an Abortion” T-shirt, my first thought was, I want one, too. The shirt was designed by Jennifer Baumgardner, co-producer of the award-winning 2005 documentary I Had an Abortion. The photo was taken by Tara Todras-Whitehill, who contacted Baumgardner and suggested photographing all of the women in the film wearing their “I Had an Abortion” T-shirts.

I did find a men’s version of the shirt still available online, though the merchant warned that it was “controversial,” a fact that has never stopped me before. Continue reading