Sexual Health Roundup is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.
New Research Suggests Early Drug Intervention May Be a “Functional Cure” for HIV
A few weeks ago, I wrote about a Mississippi toddler born to an HIV-positive mother who was apparently cleared of the virus through a triple cocktail of drugs delivered within hours of her birth. The child returned to the hospital after more than five months had passed without treatment; tests revealed no active virus in her system. If HIV was indeed eradicated from her body, the toddler represents only the second documented case in which this has happened. Some experts questioned whether she was ever truly infected, or if the positive test results were merely indicative of her mother’s status. However, her doctors said they believe that the drug therapy was able to “thread the needle” between when the virus entered her blood stream and when it would have taken up residence in T-cell reservoirs. Though the virus was still detectable in her body, it was reduced to such low levels that it could be controlled by the body without additional drug therapies. Experts refer to this as a functional cure.
Many experts questioned whether this kind of approach would be of any value to adults who may be infected through sexual contact and not know the exact moment when they contracted HIV. New research from France, however, suggests that there may have been similar results among a number of adults in the country. The scientists presented case studies on 14 patients who were treated with combination anti-retroviral therapy very early (during primary infection) but then stopped treatment for various reasons. The researchers found that “the number of infected cells circulating in the blood of these patients, known as post-treatment controller, kept falling,” despite the fact that they had not had treatment for as long as seven years. The researchers believe that this suggests early treatment may represent a “functional cure,” as it appears to have in the Mississippi case.
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Christine Rouzioux, who was a member of the French team that initially identified HIV in the 1980s, agreed that this seemed to meet the definition of a functional cure. She explained, “Early treatment in these patients may have limited the establishment of viral reservoirs, the extent of viral mutations, and preserved immune responses. A combination of those may contribute to control infection in post-treatment controllers.”
Though I still question whether using the word “cure” in cases like these is more harmful than helpful to the general public, I am interested in what the authors of the French study said in their article. They began the abstract by saying that “[g]iven the difficulty of eradicating HIV-1, a functional cure for HIV-infected patients appears to be a more reachable short-term goal.”
Later they noted that “[t]here is a renewed scientific interest in developing strategies allowing long-term remission in HIV-1-infected individuals.”
While long-term remissions may not be the cure we all dreamed of, they certainly represent progress in treating HIV infections. More importantly, renewed scientific interest in HIV and AIDS is a positive phenomenon no matter what we call the results.
Could Your Brazilian Wax Put You at Risk for Molluscum Contagious?
In our special Valentine’s Day edition of the Sexual Health Roundup, I warned that man- and woman-scaping in preparation for the big night could land you in a crowded emergency room instead of a fancy hotel room. I cited research showing that there’s been an increase in the rate of accidents among individuals who shave, trim, wax, and pluck down there. Now, a new study suggests that all that pubic hair maintenance may leave you open for at least one type of sexually transmitted infection: molluscum contagiosum.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, molluscum contagiosum is a mild skin disease caused by a virus. The virus causes small white, pink, or flesh-colored raised bumps or growths with a dimple or pit in the center. The bumps are usually smooth and firm. In most people, the growths range from about the size of a pinhead to as large as a pencil eraser. These spots are usually painless but may become itchy, red, swollen, or sore. The virus only affects the skin and does not circulate in the blood of healthy individuals.
This condition is most often found in children and can be spread by touching infected skin, which also means it can be spread during sexual activity. (It has been suggested that the virus might also be spread by sharing warm wet environments like swimming pools, hot tubs, or towels, but this has not been proven.)
Researchers in France had noticed an increase in sexually transmitted cases of mollescum contagiosum and began to wonder whether that increase had anything to do with the trend of removing most or all of one’s pubic hair.
Before I report on their findings, it is important to note that this is a very small study, and these results show only association, not causation. The researchers looked at the records of patients in their clinic who had been diagnosed with sexually transmitted molluscum contagiosum between 2011 and 2012—30 patients in all (six women and 24 men). Of those patients, 93 percent had removed their pubic hair, either through shaving (70 percent), clipping (13 percent), or waxing (10 percent). Ten of the 30 patients had at least one other skin condition, such as warts or a bacterial infection.
Again, the findings, which were published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections, are merely preliminary. Moreover, molluscum contagiousum appears to be a nuisance at worst; without treatment, it is likely to clear up within six to 12 months on its own. So why the warning about waxing? Because some experts agree that there is logic in the findings and that the same logic could be applied to the spread of other, more serious diseases like herpes.
Healthy skin and even pubic hair can protect the body from infection. In contrast, the little cuts or nicks that are common with any kind of hair removal can make the body more vulnerable. Dr. Robert Brodell, chief of the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Division of Dermatology, explained recently that “[t]he body has a number of defense mechanisms to prevent infection. One of those mechanisms is normal, healthy skin.”
Dr. Jonathan Zenilman, chief of the Infectious Diseases Division at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, cautioned about reading too much into the study, but said that the findings make sense. He pointed out that herpes is known to be more transmissible if small trauma occurs to the skin during sex.
So consider this just another reason to take care of the skin in your most sensitive regions, whether you decide to go hairless or leave it au naturel.
Sexcereal: It’s What’s for Breakfast
Two things that don’t sound particularly sexy? Canada and breakfast cereal. Apparently, though, when you put them together you get a new product that’s supposed to ignite our sex drives, one bowl at a time. Sexcereal is the brainchild of Canadian businessman Peter Ehrlich, who believes it could be a vehicle for improving sexual health. After coming up with the idea, Ehrlich turned to nutritionists to develop separate formulas for men and women and to a well-known marketing firm to create packaging that would convey the cereal’s message without making it seem like a gag gift. The resulting packages have 1940s-style pin-ups on them: a man seductively holding a banana and a woman presenting a sexy bowl of berries.
The male cereal is said to be “blended with ingredients shown to support testosterone and then some.” The ingredients include rolled oats, wheat germ, water, chia seeds, black sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, blueberries (sweetened with apple juice), cacao nibs, goji berries, bee pollen, maca powder, camu camu, and coconut sugar.
The female cereal package promises “balanced hormones and then some.” It contains rolled oats, oat bran, sunflower seeds, water, flax seeds, chia seeds, soy protein, cranberries (sweetened with apple juice), goji berries, cacao nibs, almonds, ginger ground, maca powder, and coconut sugar.
Though much of this is just standard health store fare, maca powder is often sold as a libido booster.
So far, Sexcereal is only sold in some stores in Canada (though you can buy it online), so it may be a while before we can see for ourselves how it tastes and whether it works.
One commentator on the Toronto Sun’s website seems to have summed up the product: “At 12 dollars for a small bag, you’re definitely getting screwed.”