Roundups Sexual Health

Smoking More Dangerous to HIV-Positive Individuals than the Virus, App Shares STD Info, Ovulation Affects Attraction

Martha Kempner

A new study suggests that smoking can cut the lives of HIV-positive patients by over 10 years; a new app wants to reassure you that the cute guy at the bar doesn't have an STD; and research shows that women who find their partner sexy feel best about him during ovulation.

Smoking and HIV: Tobacco Is More Dangerous to HIV-Positive Individuals than the Virus Itself

As we all know, HIV infection is no longer the death sentence it once was. Not anymore. Today, with proper treatment HIV-positive individuals can lead long and healthy lives. Like with anyone else, however, this long life may be cut short by smoking.

A new study examined the health records of nearly 3,000 Danish individuals with HIV from 1995 (which was the year antiretroviral triple therapy became standard) until 2010. The study, published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, found that “a 35-year-old HIV patient who did not smoke was likely to live to age 78, while one who smoked was likely to die before age 63….”

Denmark has universal health care which provides HIV-treatment through AIDS centers across the country. According to the study’s authors, this means that “treatment failures and loss to follow-up are rare.”

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The study also compared these HIV patients with average Danes of the same age and sex. It found that smoking is more dangerous for HIV-positive individuals than it is for those who are not infected with the virus. Infected individuals who smoked had a higher risk of early death from cancer or heart diseases than smokers who were not infected. Moreover, “smoking was more closely linked to early death than was obesity, excess drinking or baseline viral load (a measure of how sick a patient was at diagnosis).”

The study’s conclusions are fairly straightforward—doctors should urge their HIV-positive patients to quit smoking. 

New App Provides “Certified” STD Information

So you’re standing in a bar looking at a hot guy. Half of you is thinking that maybe you’ll take him home that night, you know, just for fun while the other, more cautious half, is reminding you that he could have any number of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) and there’s no way to know just by looking at him (or even at his penis). It’s probably too late at night for him to get a copy of his medical records forwarded to you, so what do you?  

The developers at MedXCom think they can help you with exactly this situation. Their new app encourages users to get tested for STDs. For those who test positive, the app helps them coordinate treatment and follow-up. Those who test negative can have their health care provider post their status to the app and then share this “certified” status with potential sexual partners—apparently through a phone bump, if your phone does that kind of thing.  

I suppose there is room in this digital world for all kinds of apps and anything that encourages people to get tested and know their STD status is good. Though I must say such an impersonal exchange of personal information seems like an odd way to start a relationship and it doesn’t really promote active communication about sex. A better idea in my opinion would be to ask your partner or pick-up point blank about STDs—sure they could tell a lie or even more likely just not know their status but it’s a start.

Most importantly, however, regardless of what he says or what her phone tells you—use a condom.

How Women Feel About Their Partners Based on Sex Appeal and Ovulation

Every few months, new research reminds us that we really are the product of an evolutionary cycle designed to spur the propagation of the species. Past research on women and ovulation, for example, has found that men find women who are ovulating more attractive and that women are more attracted to masculine faces and bodies when they are fertile than at other points in the month. The latest research suggests that how women react to their partner throughout the month is related to both their ovulation cycle and their existing opinion of how sexy their partner is.

Researchers enrolled 108 heterosexual women who had been in a committed relationship for an average of two years and were not on birth control pills, breast feeding, or pregnant. The women were asked the same set of questions at two different points in their cycle (the points were confirmed by ovulation tests). The questions asked how close they were to their partner, how satisfied they were with their relationships, what they thought of as their partners faults and virtues, and how sexy other women would find their partner compared to other men. 

The researchers concluded that the heterosexual women who thought their partners were highly desirable were likely to feel more satisfied with their relationship just before ovulation than at less fertile times of the month. The opposite was true of women who did not think their partners were so sexy—these women were likely to be more critical of their partners and not feel as close to them at ovulation.

According to the authors, these findings confirm previous research that women choose mates for two co-existing reasons: “one leading to preferences for sexually desirable men who have high-fitness genes, and one leading to preferences for men who are able to invest in a woman and her children.”

LiveScience writer Jennifer Abbasi spoke with the study’s authors and explains it this way:

“Dissatisfaction with a less sexually desirable partner when a woman is near ovulation may have encouraged cheating among our female ancestors, thus increasing the likelihood of conceiving children with sexually desirable partners…because sexually desirable traits like masculine appearance in men are thought to have indicated genetic quality in ancestral environments, these couplings outside the primary partnership might have provided an evolutionary advantage for ancestral women.”

The authors plan additional research to determine whether today’s women really do act on these changes in feelings toward their partner either by treating them differently or by cheating on them. 

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: An HIV Shot, Cuts to Abstinence-Only Funding, and the STD Alphabet Game

Martha Kempner

This week, scientists test a shot that could prevent HIV for up to three months at a time, President Obama's budget calls for cutting abstinence-only-until-marriage funding, and many Americans apparently mix up their HPV and their HTML.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

HIV Prevention in a Shot?

It’s not a vaccine, but scientists are closer to developing a shot that could protect against HIV for about three months. The shot would include a new version of the drug currently used in what’s called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). Though studies thus far have only been in monkeys, the results are promising.

In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of Truvada, which already existed to treat HIV, as a prevention method. Studies have shown that it is effective. For example, one study among men who have sex with men found that those who were given PrEP were 44 percent less likely to contract HIV than those who weren’t. Moreover, those who remembered to take their medication every day or almost every day saw a reduction in risk of 73 percent or more (some up to 92 percent). Studies of HIV discordant, heterosexual couples (couples in which one partner has HIV and the other does not) found that PrEP reduced the risk of the uninfected partner becoming infected by 75 percent, or as much of 90 percent among those who took the pill every day or almost every day. Of course, taking a pill every day can be difficult for some people, so scientists are working on a way to make using PrEP easier.

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Two new studies with monkeys suggest that a long-acting, injectable version of Truvada could work to protect humans for three months at a time. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave six monkeys shots of the drug every four weeks; six others got placebo shots. The monkeys were then exposed to a human-monkey version of HIV twice a week for 11 weeks. Those who got the real shot were 100 percent protected, while the monkeys who got the fake shots got infected. In a similar study, researchers in New York gave eight monkeys two shots of the drug four weeks apart and gave dummy shots on the same schedule to eight other monkeys. They then exposed the primates to the virus every week for eight weeks. The results were the same: The monkeys who got the dummy shots were infected, but those who got the real shots were not. A second study done by that same group of researchers gave monkeys one shot at a time to determine how long it remained effective and concluded that a single shot protected them for about ten weeks on average.

Though there is a long way to go from the primate lab to the drug store, many experts are optimistic. Dr. Robert Grant at the Gladstone Institutes, for example, told the Associated Press, “This is the most exciting innovation in the field of HIV prevention that I’ve heard recently.”

Obama Budget Slashes Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Money

The budget that President Obama submitted to Congress this week—which many politicians and pundits declared dead-on-arrivalincluded major cuts to abstinence-only-until-marriage funding. Though we may have thought that funding for this failed form of sex education dried up when Obama, who supports a more comprehensive approach to educating young people, took office, the truth is a good deal of money is still being handed out to organizations that want teens to say no until they get hitched. In fact, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) included a $50 million block grant of money available for states to use to abstinence-only programs. The block grant was originally part of Welfare Reform in 1996 and stayed in place for over a decade, despite research that it was ineffective. The funding stream was allowed to expire when Obama took office, but Sen. Oren Hatch (R-UT) successfully resurrected by attaching it to the ACA.

A second funding stream for abstinence-only programs is called Competitive Abstinence Education and provides $5 million for certain programs. In order to qualify, programs must meet a strict eight-point definition of “abstinence education,” which was introduced as part of the block grants in 1996. Among other things, programs are required to have as their “exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity” and to teach students that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.” Though the fact that this definition remains in place is disheartening, one change from the heyday of the abstinence-only movement under President George W. Bush is that the programs must be medically accurate.

If Obama’s budget were to go through as is, both of these grant programs would be cut. The likelihood of this happening is, however, extremely slim, and it remains to be seen if this is one of the areas in which the House and/or Senate will attempt to make changes.

Many Americans Think HTML is an STD

Though I would like to blame abstinence-only-until-marriage programs for this latest indication that Americans have not leaned everything they need to know, the fault here may lie with a lack of computer science programs instead. You see, a new survey by the coupons website VoucherCloud.net found that 11 percent of Americans think HTML is a sexually transmitted disease (STD). In fairness, we do use a lot of acronyms to describe STDs, and, oddly, many seem to start with H: HIV, HPV, HSV-1, HSV-2, and Hep-B.

In honor of the 11 percent, we thought we’d pose our own quiz. Mycoplasma genitalium is: a) the flattest television screen available, b) a recently discovered STD caused by a very small bacterium, c) a computer programming language, or d) a new hit single by Miley Cyrus.

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: RIP Virginia Johnson, HPV Rates Stall, and Smoking During Pregnancy Worse Than Thought

Martha Kempner

This week, Virginia Johnson, half of the pioneering sex research team Masters and Johnson, died; it was reported that HPV vaccination rates have stalled; and new research said smoking during pregnancy causes behavioral issues in kids.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Sex Researcher Virginia Johnson Dies

Virginia Johnson, best known as half of the sex research team Masters and Johnson, died Thursday at the age of 88. Johnson became a household name in 1966 when she and her partner, gynecologist William Masters, published Human Sexual Response. The book, considered groundbreaking in the field of sex research, presented the results of laboratory studies of men and women actively engaging in sexual behavior either together or alone. Using their observations, the authors described the sexual response cycle in both genders as having four stages: excitement (in which the penis and clitoris become erect and the vagina lubricates), plateau (in which individuals maintain a stable level of arousal), orgasm (in which individuals experience a rush of pleasurable sensations), and resolution (in which the body returns to its unexcited state). They also argued that Freud’s theory of vaginal orgasms being superior to clitoral orgasms was false, saying, essentially, “An orgasm is an orgasm.”

Though she became a researcher and sex therapist in her own right, Johnson joined Masters in 1957 as his administrative assistant after having been a country singer and a newspaper writer. At the time, Johnson had also been married and divorced three times and was the mother of two small children.

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Masters and Johnson went on to work together for over 35 years, during which they ran the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation in St. Louis (which was later named after them) and wrote more than five additional books. Though they are pioneers in the field of sex research, they have received a fair share of criticism over the years. Some researchers have argued that what they observed in a laboratory setting was not necessarily what happens in bedrooms across the United States. Moreover, their 1988 book about AIDS, Crisis: Heterosexual Behavior in the Age of AIDS, which was not peer reviewed, included some glaring inaccuracies about the disease, such as the assertion that it could be transmitted by eating food prepared by an infected restaurant worker.

The pair married in 1971 and divorced amicably in 1993. Their relationship and work was the subject of a 2010 book, Thomas Maier’s Masters of Sex, which has been turned into a series for Showtime, premiering this fall.

HPV Vaccination Rates Stall

Earlier this week, Rewire reported on two new studies representing good news and bad news about human papillomavirus (HPV). First, researchers concluded that certain strains of HPV cause about one-third of cancers of the neck and throat. On the flip side, another study found that one of the available vaccines designed to prevent HPV infection and cervical cancer can also prevent these cancers of the neck and throat. Unfortunately, now news has come out that there was a slowdown in the number of vaccines given in 2012.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released an article this week showing that HPV vaccination had increased over the first five years the vaccine was available, and that by 2011, 53 percent of girls had gotten at least one dose. In 2012, however, that number barely budged, with only 53.8 percent of girls having received the shot. According to USA Today, CDC Director Tom Frieden told reporters in a telephone briefing on Thursday that this is very disappointing news. “Coverage for girls getting this anti-cancer vaccine has not increased at all from one year to the next. Zero,” said Frieden. “We’re dropping the ball. We’re missing opportunities to give the HPV vaccine. That needs to change to protect girls from cervical cancer.”

The CDC recommends that girls receive the three-dose vaccination as part of their regular preventative care beginning at age 11. The goal is to make sure that all young women are protected from HPV before they become sexually active. This is clearly not happening. According to the paper, if every girl 11 and up who saw a health-care worker since 2007 had been encouraged to get the HPV vaccine, coverage could have reached 92 percent.

A study earlier this year suggested that some parents still fear that the HPV vaccine will encourage sexual activity in young people. Frieden pointed out that this is not the case, saying simply, “HPV vaccine does not open the door to sex. HPV vaccine closes the door to cancer.”

Parents also have been swayed by false reports of the vaccine being unsafe. The truth is that the vaccine is quite safe. More than 56 million doses of the HPV vaccine have been distributed since 2006, and only 21,194 adverse events have been reported. Most of these are limited to pain at the site of the shot, redness, and swelling. As Frieden put it, “We’ve been doing a systematic review of medical records in managed care systems for any adverse events that occur after vaccination with the HPV vaccine and we haven’t seen anything other than fainting.”

Fainting is not uncommon after any vaccine, especially for adolescents.

HPV is very common, with about 79 million Americans becoming infected each year. Moreover, about 17,400 women in the United States get cancer caused by the virus—cervical cancer being the most common type. And about 8,800 men get cancers of the neck, throat, and penis from HPV.

Smoking During Pregnancy May Lead to “Conduct Disorders” in Kids

There is a picture in one of the old photo albums on my parents’ bookshelf of my mother visibly pregnant with my sister unabashedly smoking a cigarette at a party. It was 1970; no one had told her or anyone else that it was a bad idea. By the time she got pregnant with me two years later, doctors were recommending that women quit smoking at least for those all-important nine months. In the decades since, it has become clear that smoking during pregnancy can lead to a host of problems, including miscarriage, placental abruption (when the placenta separates from the uterus too early), premature babies, babies with low birth weight, sudden infant death syndrome, and certain birth defects, such as cleft palates. New research, published in JAMA Psychiatry, now adds behavior problems to the list of health issues smoking during pregnancy can cause.

Researchers looked at data from three studies of parents and children: one that includes biological and adopted children, one that includes children adopted at birth, and a third that includes children who are “adopted at conception” and are raised either by parents who are genetically related to them or ones who are not.

Mothers were asked if they smoked during pregnancy and how many cigarettes they smoked per day. The researchers then asked both parents and teachers about any behavioral problems the children displayed between the ages of 4 and 10. Children were given a behavior score based on these reports with 100 being the average. The researchers determined that children born to biological mothers who did not smoke scored 99 on average, while those born to mothers who smoked ten or more cigarettes per day scored 104 on average. These results did not change based on whether a child was raised by the birth mother or not, suggesting the issues are biological rather than social.

Theodore A. Slotkin, a professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at the Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina, published an editorial that accompanied the study. He writes, “Thus, the conclusion is incontrovertible: Prenatal tobacco smoke exposure contributes significantly to subsequent conduct disorder in the offspring.”

Of course, if I try to hold this over my sister in any way, she will undoubtedly point out that mom’s doctors ordered her to have a glass of vodka every day to “quiet the baby” during the last six weeks of her pregnancy with me. But that’s for another article.