STD Awareness: Trichomoniasis, the Pear-Shaped, Blood-Sucking, Silent Scourge

What’s shaped like a pear, hangs with a posse of bacteria, and is a silent scourge upon millions of urogenital tracts? I hope you guessed Trichomonas vaginalis, the single-celled parasite that causes trichomoniasis, or trich (pronounced “trick”). Trich is the most common curable sexually transmitted disease out there — currently afflicting around 3.7 million Americans and 156 million Earthlings.


These single-celled creatures pack a punch, but the body fights back.


When trich causes symptoms, sufferers might experience vaginal discharge (which sometimes has a bad odor), penile burning or discharge, spotting, and itching or swelling in the genital area. But around 70 percent of infections have no symptoms at all, making it a mostly “silent” disease. Based on the totality of the evidence, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) doesn’t currently recommend routine screening for trich in people without symptoms.

But it’s the subject of some debate. Since both symptoms and screenings are rare, and the disease isn’t reportable, some health experts worry that trich could be doing a lot of damage right under our noses. An infection during pregnancy could increase risk for preterm labor or low birth weight. It can increase risk for both acquiring and transmitting HIV from or to a partner. Women with trich are more likely to acquire an HIV infection when sexually exposed to the virus — in fact, one study estimated that 6.2 percent of all HIV infections among U.S. women could be attributed to trich. It’s also easier to catch HIV from a man with trich than from a man without trich. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Searching for an HIV Vaccine

Ever since the dawn of the AIDS era, researchers have worked nonstop to develop an HIV vaccine. In 1984, Margaret Heckler of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services famously (over)promised that a vaccine would be ready for testing in two years. But it’s taken much, much longer. This Saturday, May 18, is HIV Vaccine Awareness Day, a celebration of the patients, community members, and scientists who are hard at work bringing this vaccine into existence.


Only one vaccine — still in the experimental stage — has shown any effectiveness against HIV.


Hiding from the Immune System

Vaccines are inspired by our own bodies’ ability to fight disease. Usually, when our immune system encounters a threat, it takes note of the viral “antigens,” which are like facial features — a button nose, say, or dramatically arched eyebrows — that make it instantly recognizable. It creates “antibodies,” weapons that can target those antigens like guided missiles. Often, the immune system can remember the distinguishing facial features so it’s ready to attack if the enemy ever returns — giving us immunity, possibly for life.

Vaccines take advantage of our natural ability to create these immune memories by exposing our immune systems to antigens without actually exposing us to infectious viruses. Think of it as a “wanted” poster that helps the immune system recognize “bad guys” before it actually sees them on the street, enabling it to attack and destroy them before they cause disease. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Can HIV Be Cured Now?

In 1991, when Timothy Ray Brown was in his 20s, he moved from the United States to Europe in search of adventure. His travels brought him to Berlin, where he put down roots and became a translator — but this newfound stability was quickly disrupted. A former boyfriend told him he had been diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and suggested Brown be tested as well. The results were positive. Brown calculated he had about two more years left to live.

His fortunes changed the next year when antiretroviral drugs transformed HIV from a death sentence to a manageable chronic disease. Life went on. But 10 years later, in 2006, he started noticing changes. While he usually made a 14-mile round trip on his bike to and from work, a quick ride to a café one mile away left him so winded he had to stop halfway through.


We still don’t have an HIV cure that works for everyone.


He was diagnosed with leukemia, a type of cancer that affects certain types of blood cells. He immediately began chemotherapy, a taxing regimen that nearly killed him when an infection forced his doctors to induce a coma. And when the cancer came back, his doctors recommended a bone marrow transplant, which involved wiping out his immune system with drugs and radiation. A year later, after his leukemia came back, he received a second bone marrow transplant. Recovery was grueling. He descended into delirium, nearly went blind, and was temporarily paralyzed. He had to undergo physical therapy to relearn how to walk and talk.

Miraculously, he came out of this near-death experience in full remission from leukemia. But the bone marrow transplants hadn’t just gotten rid of his leukemia. They had gotten rid of his HIV infection, too. The media dubbed him the “Berlin patient.” Continue reading

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

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

STD Awareness: How Common Is Herpes?

Those of you with an eye for weird news might have noticed recent headlines about wild monkeys in Florida suffering from a herpes epidemic.

Two things in that sentence might have tripped you up. One, Florida has wild monkeys? Yup. In the late 1930s, after a Tarzan movie was wrapped, three male and three female rhesus monkeys were released into the Florida wilds, giving rise to an estimated 1,000 monkeys roaming the Sunshine State today.


Both oral herpes and genital herpes are on the decline.


The second thing that might have given you pause: Monkeys can get herpes? Yes again! The Herpesviridae family is huge, with at least 100 members infecting mammals, birds, reptiles, bony fish, amphibians, and oysters — even dinosaurs are thought to have been infected by herpesviruses! The virus has been evolving alongside us since before the dawn of humanity, so it knows us like the back of its hand (metaphorically speaking), allowing it to stow away in our bodies and hide from the immune system.

The “Tarzan” monkeys suffer from a type of herpesvirus called herpes B, which can be deadly in humans, though it’s rare — just try not to find yourself on the receiving end of a monkey bite or scratch. Not so rare in humans are human herpesviruses, of which there are eight types. Types 1 and 2 — aka herpes simplex virus (HSV) 1 and 2 — can both cause genital herpes, one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). HSV-1 mostly causes cold sores, but can also infect the genitals to cause genital herpes, while HSV-2 mostly causes genital herpes, but can also infect the facial area to cause cold sores. (A little confusing, I know.) Continue reading

STD Awareness: The Long Road to a Chlamydia Vaccine

Earlier this year, television personality John Oliver was the butt of an elaborate prank orchestrated by actor Russell Crowe. It started with an auctioned jock strap, and ended with Crowe funding the John Oliver Koala Chlamydia Ward at the Australia Zoo. If you want the full story, check out the video below (beware explicit language).

Despite Oliver playing it for laughs, koala chlamydia is very real and very serious. At least half of wild koalas are infected with a chlamydia type that’s related to the human version. As in humans, koalas can transmit these bacteria through sexual contact. And, similar to the havoc it wreaks in our species, in koalas chlamydia can cause blindness, urinary tract infections, and female infertility — and can be passed from mother to infant. Along with other factors, chlamydia is said to be responsible for plummeting koala populations in many parts of Australia. Continue reading