Student Life

If you’re planning on getting busy this Valentine’s Day, stay protected

Spread the love, not the disease

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, some of us who are romantically involved are preparing to spend the day with that special someone. While indulging your partner is important, so is keeping in mind the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or disease (STD).

According to Women’s Health, the difference between STIs and STDs are whether symptoms are present, and ailments are only described as diseases when symptoms are present. “You can have an infection, such as chlamydia, without symptoms,” said Angela Jones, M.D., an ob-gyn at Healthy Woman Obstetrics and Gynecology in Monmouth, NJ. Since 2005, the Canadian government has recorded a rise in reported STD/STI cases, mainly cases concerning chlamydia, which is the most reported sexually transmitted disease in Canada. In 2009-2010, 68 per cent of sexually active 15 to 24 year-olds reported using a condom the last time they had intercourse, according to Statistics Canada.

The World Health Organization states that there are more than 30 viruses, bacterias and parasites that can be transmitted sexually. Of these, eight are the cause of most reported STD/STI cases. Four are currently curable: syphilis, gonorrhoea, chlamydia and trichomoniasis. The other four—hepatitis B, herpes, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and human papillomavirus (HPV)—are viral infections and are not curable.

“While most people think that STDs[/STIs] are only transmittable through sexual intercourse, like penetration, there are really, in fact, many ways of getting them,” said Charlotte Gagné, a sexology student at the Université du Québec à Montréal. “For example, [they can be transmitted through] skin to skin contact, blood and sharing sex toys. It can also be passed down from mother to child.”

One of the best ways to avoid contracting and spreading STDs/STIs is to use protection. Condoms are accessible, relatively affordable and they come in various styles that can make using protection fun. Trojan has ribbed condoms geared for female pleasure, their thinnest condom called the ‘bareskin’ and even benzocaine-lubed condoms for climax control, all meant to maximize pleasure. Just be sure to always check condoms for rips or tears, as well as expiry dates, before use.

STDs/STIs not only affect you physically, but mentally and socially as well. “Our society judges and rejects people with STDs[/STIs],” said Gagné. “They are often seen as prostitutes or floozies. People are afraid to touch them, they act as if they have the plague.”

Kelyane Dizazzo, a student at Collège Ahuntsic, has contracted chlamydia in the past. “It felt like the end of the world,” said Dizazzo. “I know it could’ve been something much worse, but when I got the news, I couldn’t stop crying,” she said. Whether you’re single or in a relationship, the importance of getting regularly tested for STDs/STIs while sexually active is pertinent. Concordia Health Services recommends getting tested every two months, or between different sexual partners.

“I lost some friends,” added Dizazzo. “Their girlfriends didn’t want them near me, let alone talking to me.” Dizazzo went on to explain that if she had known how badly this disease would affect her, she would have been much more careful.

“Being informed is key,” said Gagné. “Knowing about the different types of STDs[/STIs] and how they can be transmitted not only helps you know how to protect yourself, but it lets you know what to expect if you are not careful.”
Being honest with yourself and your partner can help stop the spread of these sexually transmitted diseases. Having an STD/STI does not only affect you, it also affects your future sexual partners, and previous ones that could be carriers or infected as well.

“There a lot of resources available to help prevent STDs[/STIs], but you have to look for them,” said Gagné. “If you think you have an STD[/STI] or just want to make sure that everything is okay, go to an STD[/STI] testing clinic. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Valentine’s Day is about showing your loved ones how much you care. While Hallmark holidays will push us to buy material items as expressions of our love, what better gift is there than the gift of protection and peace of mind?

Feature graphic by @spooky_soda

Student Life

Tend to your secret garden, ladies

It may not be pleasant but it’s important to get your cervix scraped on the regular

Happy women’s day! In celebration, here is an article about an important, but feared topic: vaginal health. Two great ways to treat your yoni right are regular pelvic exams and the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.

Pelvic exams are the only thing more dreaded than calculus exams. They’re uncomfortable, to be sure, but the mild and momentary discomfort is worth the reward of a muffin in fighting shape. The best thing you can do for your vagina is to have regular pelvic exams. A pelvic exam has three parts: a digital exam to check if your organs are healthy, a pap test to check for abnormal (pre-cancerous) cells and a check for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), if requested. The entire exam is over in 15 minutes if you take advantage of the pap-only clinics offered by Concordia University Health Services.

Graphic by Marie-Pier LaRose

Although students are welcome to have their pelvic exam done as part of a full check-up, Health Services also offers pap-only clinics as an extra incentive to give your Garden of Eden the attention it deserves. These clinics are designed to leave students with few excuses to avoid this essential check-up. One great reason to take advantage of this service is that a visit to the pap-only clinic guarantees seeing a female physician. Also, the physicians taking part in the pap-only clinics specialize in female reproductive health—which translates to the most efficient and comfortable exam possible.

I would be remiss not to mention that HPV while writing about vaginal health. Gabriella Szabo, health promotion specialist and nurse at Concordia’s Health Services, explained that HPV is highly contagious—in fact, 70 per cent of people will experience an infection in their lifetime. The majority of infections are asymptomatic and a healthy immune system takes care of them in a couple of years. However, some infections can produce genital warts and abnormal cells on the cervix, which can lead to cervical cancer.

“Condoms can always decrease your risk of getting an STI (including HPV), but HPV can still be transmitted by parts of the genitals not covered by the condom,” said Josée Lavoie, a registered nurse at Concordia University Health Services. She recommends the HPV vaccine as the best protection. The HPV vaccine protects against the four strains of HPV that together cause 70 per cent of cervical cancers and 90 per cent of all genital warts.

While both of these conditions are highly treatable, the emotional trauma associated with diagnosis is a factor worth considering. “Getting a sexually transmitted infection is not just about getting the infection,” said Szabo. “Getting that diagnosis, it causes a lot of suffering. It’s very scary and people ascribe a lot of meaning to that. It causes a lot of distress. So getting the vaccination is an important part of helping to prevent that really negative emotional roller coaster that a person can experience with that diagnosis.”

To be sure, the stress of being diagnosed with an STI is the last thing a student needs in between presentations, papers, midterms and finals.

If the HPV vaccine is something you’re considering, the best time to do it is as a Concordia student. The university’s Health Centre charges only the cost of the vaccine, so it’s less expensive than at other clinics. Also, the health insurance offered by the Concordia Student Union (CSU) to undergraduate students covers up to 80 per cent of the cost of vaccination.

Our vaginas are something we don’t talk about enough, despite being literally the cradle of life. Whether your pink macaroon is filled with dreams, cobwebs or self-loathing, it deserves some quality attention.
Here are some questions you might be too shy to ask:

  • Who should be getting a pelvic exam?
    Any vagina owner who is sexually active or over the age of 21. Depending on your risk factors (which your health care specialist will assess), an exam is usually recommended every three years.
  • Is there a rectal exam?
    No! A rectal exam is not part of a regular pelvic exam for women.
  • How can I work up the courage to show a stranger my vagina?
    This particular stranger specializes in vaginas and has seen every permutation of genitals you can imagine. The reality is that your vagina is probably wholly unremarkable (to a physician).
  • Should I “tidy up” for a pelvic exam?
    It’s not necessary to coif your crumpet—your health is the first and only thing on a physician’s mind.
  • I’m not sexually active/I always use condoms/I am monogamous, should I still go for a pelvic exam?
    Absolutely! Many people associate pelvic exams with getting checked out for STIs. A pelvic exam also checks for abnormal cells on the cervix. If caught early, the condition can be monitored and treated. If left to linger unmonitored, abnormal cells on the cervix can progress to cancer.

So ladies, take care of your special flowers and they’ll take care of you.

Student Life

HPV vaccine may not be the only form of prevention for women

McGill PhD student Joseph Tota, has recently launched a new research project on HPV prevention under the supervision of Dr. Eduardo Franco. This project, called CATCH, stands for Carrageenan gel Against Transmission of Cervical HPV and seeks to evaluate a possible alternative to the vaccination by the use of a lubricant that contains the algae carrageenan.

Photo by Flickr user Tulane Publications

“CATCH is a randomized controlled trial that was designed in response to a discovery made by scientists working at the National Cancer Institute where they identified carrageenan, an inexpensive gelling agent that is non-toxic, safe on animals and humans, to be a potent HPV infection inhibitor,” explains Tota.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, the human papilloma virus (HPV) is the second-leading cause of cancer among women in the world, following breast cancer. With more than 120 types of HPV that fall into low-risk and high-risk categories, 75 per cent of sexually active women will acquire the HPV infection over a lifetime. HPV-6 and HPV-11 are two of the more common low-risk infections that infect the skin and genital area and can produce warts.  HPV-16 and HPV-18 are categorized as high-risk infections that can lead to cervical cancer.

In 2006, the Federal Drug Association approved the HPV vaccine, commonly known as Gardasil or Cervarix. The Santé et services sociaux website explains how Quebec offers the vaccine to girls and women as early as the age of nine as part of a free vaccination program administered in schools. Other girls under the age of 18 can be vaccinated for free at the CLSC or with their doctor. However women over 18 who don’t have medical insurance must pay approximately $130 per dose, a price set by the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board of Canada. For both teenagers and adults, three doses of the vaccine over a six-month period are recommended for proper protection, therefore the total cost is rather expensive and Tota explains perhaps not the most preventive after all.

“The current available HPV vaccines only target up to four different HPV types: 6, 11, 16, and 18,” and are  “effective only if administered to girls prior to the onset of sexual debut,” says Tota.

The carrageenan gel being studied by CATCH may be effective in preventing all types of HPV, if administered immediately before sex and among women of all ages. Accessibility and cost of HPV prevention is something Tota and his team are keeping in mind while they run this study.

“If our trial demonstrates carrageenan to be effective in protecting against all genital HPV types, then we expect that many more personal sexual lubricants will become available by different manufacturers containing carrageenan,” says Tota. “Despite being required to apply the gel on an ongoing basis, its costs are substantially less [than the vaccine].”

The gel must be self-applied prior to each act of sexual intercourse, “in the same way as other personal sexual lubricants that are purchased over the counter,” says Tota. A small amount (five to 10 millilitres) may be applied directly to the vagina, penis or condom prior to sex. Afterwards, the gel may be removed with warm water.

This discreet method of prevention would make it empowering for women, explains Tota, especially “women who are unable to refuse sex due to cultural, social, or financial arrangement.” For women in developing countries, where HPV infection is rampant, this gel may prove to be a useful adjunct to the vaccination which would have “enormous and immediate public health implications,” according to Tota.

Currently the HPV vaccine is the only form of prevention and has faced criticism over the years. In 2012, The Globe and Mail published an article expressing parents’ concerns and how their biggest fears revolved around not having enough information about the vaccine, feeling rushed to make a decision about whether their children should get it, and how they questioned its safety. The vaccine looms in the shadows of Big Pharma and some are sceptical about whether it is just a push to promote their vaccines.

In the United States, the vaccine has been argued to promote sexual promiscuity among young teens, an issue The New York Times addressed last October after a study proved that the vaccine is not going to give girls a license to sexual activity.

“Despite our best attempts to convince parents of its safety, some will continue to deny permission to vaccinate their daughters,” says Tota. “For children and adults who have been denied access to vaccination for whatever reason (cost, safety, or other reasons), a carrageenan gel may be the only other effective means to protect against HPV.”

For individuals who are against vaccines, Health Canada’s Natural Health Products Directorate has labelled the CATCH project as a natural intervention. Carrageenan is a gel naturally derived from three species of red algae. It has a long history of human use and has been employed extensively in the food, pharmaceutical, and cosmetics industries as a stabilizer and emulsifier. CATCH has received the support and ethical approval from Concordia’s Student Health Services and the microbiology department at Université de Montréal, something Tota explains is necessary when trying to recruit students to be part of the trial. However, “[Carrageenan gel] should not be considered as an alternative to HPV vaccination in countries that can afford both methods of protection,” reiterates Tota.

HPV is a serious health issue for women and young girls and while there is a lot of talk about HPV in the media. Gabriella Szabo, health promotions specialist at Concordia, explains how it is important to get a pap test, get tested for STIs and discuss the vaccination.

“Unfortunately, the majority of women coming now to get the vaccine have already had changes in their cervical cells,” says Szabo.

“Cervical cancer screening with the pap test and/or the HPV test is a proven way to prevent cervical cancer,” says researcher and clinical specialist in women’s health, Dr. Marie-Hélène Mayrand from the CHUM research centre. “I will always argue that we should and could be doing more to improve women’s health, although, I would like to point out that Canada leads some of the most cutting-edge, academic research in HPV, as the new study by Dr. Franco’s team underlines.”

If you are a heterosexually active woman between 18-29 years of age and you are interested in participating in this study, check out

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