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Sexual Health Roundup: HPV Vaccinations Work, Circumcision Reduces STDs, and You Should Have More Sex Than Your Friends

Martha Kempner

New research shows that widespread HPV vaccination works to reduce genital warts, at least in Australia. And the key to happiness? Don't just have more sex—make sure you're having more sex than your friends.

Cases of Genital Warts Dive Because of Widespread Vaccination … in Australia

A new study published in the British Medical Journal looks at whether widespread vaccination against the human papillomavirus (HPV) in Australia has affected the rates of related health outcomes, such as genital warts. Australia launched a nationwide HPV vaccination program for women ages 12 to 26 five years ago.

To understand the impact of the program, researchers analyzed data collected from eight different sexual health service providers that together had seen over 86,000 first-time patients between 2004 and 2011. They separated the patients by time period—those seen between 2004 and mid-2007 (before the vaccinations began) and those seen from mid-2007 to 2011 (after the vaccination program was in place)—and compared rates of genital warts diagnoses. The researchers found that the number of diagnosed cases of genital warts dropped by 93 percent in young women under age 21 and by 73 percent in women ages 21 to 30. In addition, though the program did not include vaccinating males, cases of genital warts among heterosexual men under age 21 dropped almost 82 percent, while cases in heterosexual men between the ages of 21 and 30 fell by more than 59 percent.

The researchers suggest that the overwhelming success is likely due to what is known as herd immunity—the idea that if you vaccinate a large enough segment of the population, people who are not vaccinated will also be protected. In this case, by vaccinating a large number of women, men also became protected.

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Basil Donovan, the lead researcher on the study, told HealthDay, “All indications are that the program has been an overwhelming success. … But we won’t be certain until HPV-related cancers [also] start dropping.”

HPV has been linked to cervical cancer, penile cancer, anal cancer, and cancers of the neck and throat. While genital warts tend to appear within a few months of initial infection with HPV, cancers can take 20 to 30 years to develop.

We could have similar success in this country if we could achieve widespread vaccination. Unfortunately, as I wrote for Rewire last month, there is a great deal of misinformation about the safety and importance of the vaccine as well as why it is given at such an early age. As a result, parents still seem reluctant to get their daughters vaccinated. In fact, only 19 percent of teen girls in the United States had been vaccinated in 2008 and just 32 percent in 2011. This is far lower than the 90 percent vaccination rate the CDC recommends.

HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in United States, with about 14 million new infections each year. Australia’s success suggests that with widespread vaccination, we could substantially cut that number as well as the number of people who get genital warts and possibly cervical cancer and other related cancers.  Perhaps we can take some lessons from down under in how to convince parents that this vaccine works and can potentially save lives.

New Study May Explain How Circumcision Decreases STD Risk

Recent studies have suggested that male circumcision decreases the risk for numerous STDs, including HPV and HIV. A new study in the Journal of Microbiology attempts to explain why.

Two possible explanations for these decreases include changes to the anatomy of the penis itself and changes to the bacteria that live under the foreskin or on the head of the penis. The current study used swab samples from two large-scale studies of male circumcision in Uganda. Researchers examined the types of bacteria that existed in a group of men before they were circumcised and then again a year after the procedure. They compared this to a control group of uncircumcised men.

The researchers concluded that there was a significant reduction in anaerobic bacteria (bacteria that live in areas without oxygen) among circumcised men. They theorized that in uncircumcised men, large bacterial loads encourage movement of so-called Langerhans cells in the foreskin, preventing these cells from doing their job of warding off viruses. Another theory is that more bacteria leads to inflammation, which can increase the likelihood of infection.

Ultimately, research is needed to truly understand the biology behind this, but the researchers believe that by gaining a better understanding of the bionome of the area under the foreskin, they may be able to develop non-surgical methods for changing it and preventing STD transmission.

Want to be Sexually Satisfied? Have More Sex Than Your Neighbors

A new study by a sociologist at the University of Colorado Boulder found that Americans are happier when they are having more sex—but we’re even happier if we know (or just think) we’re getting more than our friends.

The study’s author, Tim Wadsworth, analyzed data from the General Social Survey, which asks respondents whether they are “very happy,” “pretty happy,” or “not too happy.” The survey has been conducted since 1972, and in 1989 questions about sexual frequency were added. Wadsworth used data from 15,386 people who answered both questions between 1993 and 2006.

It turns out that it doesn’t take a lot of sex to make us happy, according to the study. Wadsworth found that after controlling for other factors (such as income, education, marital status, health, age, and race), respondents who were having sex at least two to three times a month were 33 percent more likely to report a higher level of happiness than those who had not have sex in the past year. But more sex equals more happiness; compared to individuals who had no sex in the previous year, those who reported having sex once a week were 44 percent more likely to report a higher level of happiness, and those reporting sex two to three times a week were 55 percent more likely to report a higher level of happiness.

But there is a catch: The happiness rate can fall if you think that other people are having more sex than you. The research found, for example, that if members of a peer group are having sex two to three times a month but believe their peers are having it once a week, their probability of reporting a higher level of happiness falls by about 14 percent. The research doesn’t prove that people are comparing themselves to others (or explain how people form their perceptions of how often the neighbors are doing it), but Wadsworth notes this behavior makes sense because we are constantly comparing ourselves to others, especially those we think have more. “We’re usually not looking down and therefore thinking of ourselves as better off, but we’re usually looking up and therefore feeling insufficient and inadequate,” he wrote.

So the key to happiness is to either have more sex, or convince your friends to have less.

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