Sex + Dating

How Scientists Are Getting Closer to Wiping Out STDs

std doctor prevention
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

From Columbus’ ships to medieval invasions, STDs have plagued the genitals of mankind for centuries. But despite all these years of, “It burns when I pee,” would you believe that the most common and effective means of prevention is still the latex condom, invented back in 1920?
       
Anyone who's ever used a condom knows those little wrappers leave a lot to be desired in sensation, smell, taste, size... and even safety. The fight against STDs is long overdue for new, game-changing hardware -- and it looks like peeing into a cup could be a lot less terrifying in coming years. Here are some products on the verge of boosting safe sex and rendering rubbers obsolete.

PrEP

PrEP is "the little blue pill” you probably haven’t heard of yet -- which is crazy, considering it’s the most effective and revolutionary method of HIV prevention ever created. Containing medication that was previously used for treating the disease, tests show that when someone HIV negative takes one pill a day, it can lower their risk of contracting the disease by a mind-blowing 92 to 99%.

But there are still medical providers who aren’t familiar with it, or at least not recommending it to patients. According to Dr. Robert Bolan at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, the reason for that is twofold: a reluctance to prescribe the antibiotic out of fear of patients building resistance -- or good ol' fashioned morality issues.

“(Some medical providers) worry about a decline in personal sexual responsibility and what would happen if people were to abandon any other risk-reduction strategies,” Bolan says. “My response... is to simply ask where’s the evidence that condom use has substantially reduced HIV incidences in the US and Europe? In other words, how well has that worked for us so far?”

Gardasil

Close Tinder and pay attention for a sec: there are STDs condoms are ineffective against. HPV is one of them. It’s actually the most common STD in the US, existing in more than 100 strains that can cause everything from genital warts to cervical cancer. Yeah. It’s gnarly.

But hey, there's a vaccine. Gardasil, a set of three shots administered by your medical provider, can prevent some of the most typical strains. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends it to men until age 21, and women until 26.

Obviously, there are the anti-vaxxers. Natural health expert Dr. Joseph Mercola urges women against Gardasil on his website, citing research that females vaccinated against HPV may have a higher risk of developing those strains the vaccine doesn’t protect. “Routine pap smear testing is a far more rational, less expensive, and a less dangerous strategy for cervical cancer prevention,” he writes.

But for others like Dr. Jason James, a Miami-based OB-GYN, it’s a serious recommendation. “In the short time HPV vaccines have been available, we’ve seen a significant decrease in abnormal pap smears,” he says. “Overall, the data says it’s sound and effective.”

Hydrogel condoms

Condoms that feel like human skin may sound like a pipe dream (no pun intended). But they could be a smooth, silky reality very soon.

Meet hydrogel, a tough yet squishy biomaterial that’s similar to contact lenses. It’s being developed as the “next generation condom” by a team at the University of Wollongong in Australia. According to Dr. Robert Gorkin, a biomedical engineer behind the project, the condoms are already in user testing. Patients give feedback verbally but also via neuromonitoring that explores subconscious preferences (think of the lab in Masters of Sex).

“If [the] user trial is successful and we don’t hit other hurdles," Gorkin says, "we would be looking at potentially two to five years to iron out mass production, regulation and market clearance.”

Tenofovir rings

Non-profit research organization CONRAD is fiercely developing a range of HIV prevention products for women using Tenofovir, a drug that’s already used in treatments.

So far, the most promising is a vaginal ring loaded with Tenofovir and birth control hormones for a double-whammy of protection against HIV and pregnancy. CONRAD’s spokesperson tells us it’s just completed a first round of testing with women, and could hit the market in eight to 10 years.

The organization is also in the early phases of a quick-dissolving Tenofovir vaginal pill, and a vaginal gel.

PPCM

In 20 years, we could see the ultimate “girl power” gel that protects against almost everything. Polyphenylene carboxymethylene (PPCM for short) is still in preclinical trials, but it would prevent HIV, herpes, HPV, AND pregnancy while showing promise against chlamydia and gonorrhea eventually too. It’s a highly charged polymer that’s being developed to block viruses from attaching to host cells that should be available by 2022.

“Right now we don’t have anything that prevents gonorrhea and chlamydia, except for the antibiotics that treat them,” says gynecologist James. “Herpes also isn’t fully protected by condoms either. It’s very empowering, for women especially. Condoms are a product that’s placed on the male partner, so this can be a welcome opportunity for women to take control of their protection.”

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Barbara Woolsey is a writer who thinks sex ed should be less condoms on bananas, and more of the above. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
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