STD Awareness: The HIV Epidemic at Home

In the United States, we understand HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — using a common narrative, one that gives us the impression that its deadliest chapters belong in decades past or distant places. It goes like this:

The disease emerged in the 1980s, cutting down young gay men in their primes and blindsiding scientists as they scrambled to unravel the virus’ mysteries. While AIDS initially whipped up mass hysteria among the general public, LGBTQ folks demanded equality, pushing to find treatments and a cure. AIDS activism and scientific research eventually led to the development of antiretroviral drugs, which tamed the plague by turning a death sentence into a chronic disease. Now, with the right medication, people with HIV can live long, healthy lives. The hysteria has died down, as most people realize viral transmission is preventable, and the infection is manageable.

One thing hasn’t changed, however: Just as it was in the 1980s, AIDS is still thought of as a disease of the “other.” Back then, it was a disease of gay men, a population cruelly marginalized by the general public. Today, it’s thought of as a disease of sub-Saharan Africa, where HIV prevalence is highest.

That narrative, however, doesn’t tell the whole story. Right here in our own backyards, the HIV epidemic continues to spread in the face of chilling indifference from those not affected. African-American MSM — men who have sex with men, who may or may not self-identify as gay or bisexual — have an HIV prevalence that exceeds that of any country in the world. In Swaziland, for example, 27 percent of adults are living with HIV/AIDS, but if current transmission rates hold steady, half of African-American MSM are projected to be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. Instead of taking this projection as a wake-up call to invest in lifesaving health policies, however, state and federal responses are poised to let it become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Contrary to racist and homophobic stereotypes, data show that black MSM aren’t more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, use drugs and alcohol, or withhold their HIV status from partners. So why are they burdened with higher HIV rates? The answer lies beyond mere behavior, embedded in policies and practices that disproportionately harm people based on race, sexuality, and geography. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Transgender Men and Cervical Health

Healthy cervical cells as seen under a microscope. Image: National Cancer Institute

Just one month ago, headlines screamed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) received a list of “banned words” from the Trump administration. One of those words was transgender, raising the alarm that the current president might be eyeing policies that would further marginalize the trans population and harm their health. (Other forbidden words include fetus, evidence-based, and vulnerable.) Some have argued it wasn’t Trump policy per se, but self-censoring on the part of the CDC to protect their budgets from being slashed by legislators hostile to transgender rights, abortion rights, science, people of color, and poor people.

In any case, refusing to use words like transgender can have grave consequences for trans health. If the CDC can’t reference the trans population when requesting money for services and studies, they will be hobbled in their ability to serve that population’s needs.

Recommendations for cervical cancer screening are the same for anyone with a cervix, whether trans or cisgender.

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. Anyone who has a cervix can develop cervical cancer — including transgender men who have not had their cervixes surgically removed. In observance of the month, and in defiance of directions to avoid the word transgender, today we’ll discuss the importance of cervical health in trans men — and why taxpayer-funded entities like the CDC and the National Institutes of Health must be able to study and serve this population.

Transgender men (or trans men for short) are individuals born with female reproductive organs, but who identify as male. Likewise, cisgender women were born with female reproductive organs and identify as female. Both trans men and cisgender women were born with cervixes, and wherever a cervix exists, the possibility of cervical cancer exists. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Is HPV Now a “Men’s Disease”?

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is most notorious for causing cervical cancer — making it, in many people’s minds, a “women’s disease.” But this gender-blind sexually transmitted virus can cause cancer in any cell it infects, and is associated with cancers of the cervix, anus, vagina, vulva, penis, and mouth and throat — aka oropharyngeal cancer.

While oropharyngeal cancers used to be caused mostly by tobacco, as people quit smoking an increasing proportion is caused by HPV. In the 1980s, only 15 percent of oropharyngeal cancers were caused by HPV, but nowadays the virus is behind 70 percent of them. A 2011 study predicted that the number of HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers will surpass cervical cancers by 2020.

HPV is rapidly gaining prominence among men.

It’s only 2017, but we’re ahead of schedule. Earlier this year, researchers reported that, in the United States, oropharyngeal cancer is more common among men than are cervical cancers among women — and oropharyngeal cancer rates are increasing in the male population, while they are relatively stagnant among women. These rates are projected to continue climbing, which will skew oropharyngeal cancer even more heavily toward the male population. But, in the public’s imagination, HPV is most well-known for its association with cervical cancer — while most people haven’t even heard of oropharyngeal cancer.

Oropharyngeal Cancer and HPV

Oropharyngeal cancer can strike the inside of your mouth and throat. Risk factors include tobacco (including cigarettes, snuff, and chewing tobacco), marijuana use, alcohol, and oral infection with HPV. HPV can be spread by most sexual activities — including vaginal, anal, and oral sex, as well as “French kissing” and rubbing genitals together. There are many strains of HPV, which come in two main categories: low-risk HPV, which can cause genital warts; and high-risk HPV, which can cause cancer. Continue reading

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

STD Awareness: “Sounding the Alarm” Over Another Antibiotic-Resistant STD

In 2012, the New England Journal of Medicine ominously stated, “It’s time to sound the alarm.” What followed was a description of the evolution of gonorrhea to all antibiotics we have used to treat it, including the last ones we had left. They closed the article with a warning: “The threat of untreatable gonorrhea is emerging rapidly.”

This summer, just five years after that alarm bell was sounded, the New England Journal of Medicine’s prediction came true. Reports of untreatable gonorrhea surfaced, shared in a World Health Organization press release: “Data from 77 countries show that antibiotic resistance is making gonorrhoea — a common sexually-transmitted infection — much harder, and sometimes impossible, to treat.”

An STD most people haven’t even heard of is rapidly evolving antibiotic resistance.

So maybe we should listen when a medical journal talks about the need to “sound the alarm.”

Sexually Transmitted Diseases, the medical journal of the American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association, did just that in an editorial called “Mycoplasma genitalium on the Loose: Time to Sound the Alarm,” which accompanied two studies detailing antibiotic resistance in a little-known STD called mycoplasma genitalium, or MG for short.

“Let me get this straight,” you might be saying. “First you’re telling me there’s an STD called MG, which most people haven’t even heard of, and now you’re telling me I already need to worry about antibiotic resistance?” Continue reading

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

STD Awareness: The Curious Case of Chancroid

Haemophilus ducreyi arrange themselves in parallel rows, which researchers have called “railroad tracks,” “schools of fish,” and “fingerprints.” Image: Mike Miller, CDC

Earlier this year, I asked a room full of scientists and medical professionals to raise their hands if they’d ever heard of chancroid. Everyone sat there, motionless, confused by the odd syllables I had uttered — shan kroyd. If you’ve never heard of chancroid, you’re not alone.

Chancroid is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) brought to you by Haemophilus ducreyi, a type of bacteria that can pass through microscopic tears in the skin during sexual contact. When one partner is infected, there is a 1 in 3 chance the other will become infected. An infection can cause painful sores and swollen lymph nodes, most often in the genital region. About half of people with chancroid infections will experience “buboes,” or swollen lymph glands that might rupture. Before it could be cured with antibiotics, a persistent infection could cause permanent skin damage.

Humanity can make chancroid the first STD to go extinct.

One reason you probably haven’t heard of chancroid is that, in the developed world at least, it has mostly disappeared. In fact, researchers believe chancroid can be completely wiped off the planet — which would make it the first STD ever to be forced into extinction. How amazing would that be?

Chancroid has been hopping from loin to loin since at least the days of the ancient Greeks, and was common until the 20th century, when rates began to decline. Thanks to antibiotics, U.S. chancroid rates decreased 80-fold between 1947 and 1997, all but vanishing by the late 1950s. It was virtually unheard of until there was another spike in the 1980s, correlating with the crack epidemic. But, since 1987, cases have been steadily declining. Continue reading