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

STD Awareness: Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Pregnancy

Every month since January 2011, we’ve been sharing installments of our STD Awareness series, and each month, we’ve encouraged you to protect yourself from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) by using dental dams and condoms. But what if you’re trying to get pregnant? In that case, you’re probably not using condoms! However, it is very important that partners know their STD status — being screened and treated for STDs prior to pregnancy is a good idea for your health, and can protect your future baby.

If you and a partner are trying to get pregnant, you might consider being screened for STDs together.

When present during pregnancy, certain STDs can have negative health effects for you or your future baby (including preterm labor, stillbirth, low birth weight, pneumonia, certain infections, blindness, and liver disease), especially if they are not cured or treated in time. Receiving prenatal care can help prevent these problems, so it is important to be screened and treated for STDs prior to or early in your pregnancy.

During pregnancy, the immune system undergoes changes, which are probably necessary to ensure that the body doesn’t reject the fetus — normally, the immune system recognizes non-self cells as potential pathogens and attacks. These immune system changes might make a pregnant person more susceptible to disease. Latent viral infections, like genital warts or herpes, might come out of dormancy. Additionally, anatomical changes lead to a larger exposed area of the cervix, which is potentially more vulnerable to initial infections. Continue reading

STD Awareness: 10 Sexually Transmitted Diseases You Probably Don’t Know About

Giardia lamblia, a microbe that can be transmitted sexually. Image: NIH

Gonorrhea and chlamydia go back to antiquity. Syphilis took hold in Europe during the late 15th century. Herpes wasn’t on most people’s radars until the early 1980s, and human papillomavirus (HPV) was relegated to relative obscurity in the popular imagination until the HPV vaccines made their debuts less than a decade ago.

Have you heard of CMV, chancroid, or donovanosis?

But there are still a handful of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) that you might not know about. These include incredibly common infections, as well as those caused by pathogens you might have heard of but probably don’t associate with sexual transmission. They also include infections that are very rare here in Arizona but are much more common in other parts of the world. They all deserve a closer look.

10 Trichomoniasis: What is the most common curable STD? You might guess that it’s chlamydia or gonorrhea, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s trichomoniasis (also known as trich, pronounced “trick”). This infection is caused by Trichomonas vaginalis, a single-celled parasite that is actually pretty cute as far as microbes go. What’s not so cute is its propensity to attach to your cells and degrade their surfaces, which on a large scale can produce unpleasant symptoms. Continue reading

STD Awareness: HPV in Males

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, can affect both males and females.

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, affects people of all genders.

Whether it’s worries over Gardasil making girls go wild, or it’s somber discussion about cervical cancer, discourse about human papillomavirus (HPV) centers around its impact on females. But who are most of these females getting HPV from? For the most part, they’re getting it from male partners. And despite the fact that cervical cancer is the most common cancer associated with HPV, it is not the only one. A high-risk strain of HPV can lead to cancers of the penis, anus, mouth, and throat; additionally, there are strains of HPV that cause genital warts, which affect males and females equally. So why don’t males figure very prominently in discussions of HPV and the preventive vaccine, Gardasil?

Mouth, throat, penile, and anal cancers can all be caused by HPV.

Some people think that if they remain abstinent until marriage, they will be able to avoid sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) — but not very many people can say with certainty that their spouses have never had any other sexual partners. Eva Perón, the second wife of Argentine president Juan Perón and a leader in her own right, was made famous here by the musical Evita. According to physician and writer Shobha S. Krishnan, she died in 1952 of cervical cancer — the same fate that befell her husband’s first wife. Many believe that Juan Perón was the source of both women’s ultimately fatal HPV infections.

While one’s own sexual behavior can increase risk for acquiring an STD, it is not the only factor — the sexual history of one’s partner also plays an important role. HPV is especially tricky because there is currently no FDA-approved test for HPV in males — despite the fact that more than half of sexually active males are estimated to have been infected with HPV at some point in their lives. And, because it is so often asymptomatic, a male can carry this virus without knowing it, unwittingly infecting his partners. Continue reading