Dec 052016
 

Too often gender and sexual minority health is distilled down to just the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)…as if that’s the only disease that could possibly be relevant. Some small amount of time might then be dedicated to STD’s like gonorrhea. But really it’s all about HIV. But ignoring all the other aspects of GSM health ignores the diversity of our communities. When I started Open Minded Health I wanted to avoid that topic. I saw so much time and so many resources being dedicated to HIV…I wanted to do something different.

Halfway through my third year of medical school now, I’m beginning to change my mind. We still need to avoid focusing only on HIV. But this one single disease has caused so much devastation, so much individual and cultural harm… I can’t just ignore it here on Open Minded Health. The focus here will still be on non-HIV aspects of GSM health care, but I’ll be sneaking in some articles on HIV too when I think it’s appropriate. Don’t worry, OMH won’t become “All AIDS all the time.”

Which all brings me to today’s article!

Literature Review

Radix, Sevelius, and Deutsch did a literature review looking at HIV in transgender women. Trans women, as a group, have the highest risk for HIV infection of all groups. Although we don’t have great data yet, the best estimate is that 19% of trans women are living with HIV.

Worse, preliminary data show that trans women are less likely to know their HIV status. As a group they’re likely to have higher viral loads. That means their HIV is not suppressed. One study in particular found that among trans women who were diagnosed, only 77% were referred to primary care, 65% were taking anti-retrovirals, and only 55% had suppressed their viral load.

HIV treatment 101
HIV

Diagram of an HIV particle

HIV cannot be cured. It causes harm by destroying part of the immune system. The goal of treatment is to reduce the number of copies of the virus, the “viral load”. The lower the viral load, the better your immune system can work (measured as a “CD4 count”). This has two benefits. First, you live longer. You’re less likely to get an infection or cancer. Second, you’re less likely to spread HIV to others. HAART is the modern gold standard of treatment. HAART stands for “highly active antiretroviral therapy”. Think of it as the new improved ART, or antiretroviral therapy. HAART is a mix of 3+ drugs that work to keep the viral from copying itself.

Trans women and HIV

Why are trans women at such high risk for HIV? Previous studies suggest it comes down to social issues. Trans women are often more visibly “trans” than trans men, and are a easier target for discrimination. They may be more likely to work in the sex industry. In that industry, anal sex is what they likely end up performing, and anal sex is the most likely to spread HIV. In addition, substance use is higher in trans populations. Sharing needles and items used for snorting can also spread HIV.

For whatever reason though trans women are at high risk. Why such a lower rate of treatment? Why are only 65% taking antiretrovirals? First there’s always cost. HAART can cost $10,000 per year and more. Second, some studies suggest that trans women may prioritize hormone therapy over HIV treatment.

HAART and hormones

Lastly, there are some very real concerns about interactions between HAART medications and hormone therapy. Both estrogen and HAART medications are processed by the liver and often by the same enzymes. Estrogen may change the amount of HAART medications that stay in the body, or vice versa.

According to this paper, the only research that’s been done so far on estrogen and HIV therapy has been done with cisgender women on birth control. As long time readers of OMH know, birth control is not hormone therapy. Birth control has both estrogen and progesterone. And the type of estrogen is different between birth control and transgender hormone therapy. Still, it’s what we have to use. These studies showed that some antiretroviral medications do change the blood level of estrogen, and that the levels of some antiretrovirals are changed by estrogen.  However we don’t know if that effect is true with the type of estrogen in transgender hormone therapy…and we don’t know if the differences in the blood levels has a real clinical effect.

I won’t go into detail of which HAART medications did what. Antiretroviral medication names are notoriously difficult to read, pronounce, and remember. Instead, here’s the important part: It is very important for your health care provider to know what you are taking. If you’re taking estrogen, tell your provider. That way they can check for drug-drug interactions and adjust medications appropriately.

What about anti-androgens, like spironolactone, finasteride, and GnRH agonists? Do they interact with antiretrovirals? There are no studies specifically about them and antiretrovirals. No interactions are known. We just don’t know.

The potential effects of transgender hormone therapy on antiretroviral medication blood levels may not even matter in HIV treatment in the end. Why? Well, we don’t just put someone on HAART and never see them again. Physicians check the viral load to see if HAART is working. So they know if doses or medications need to be changed. If there’s an interaction between drugs, they’ll see that the viral load isn’t low and they’ll change the drugs anyway.

Conclusion

In other words: There is no clear reason to avoid HAART while on hormone therapy.

Get tested, know your status, and get treatment if needed. Doing so will allow you to live for many, many years to come.

Want to read the paper for yourself? The abstract is publicly available.

Citation: Radix A et al. Journal of the International AIDS Society 2016, 19(Suppl 2):20810

Jun 272016
 

Welcome back to Open Minded Health Promotion! This week is all about how cisgender women who have sex with women, including lesbian and bisexual women, can maximize their health. As a reminder — these are all in addition to health promotion activities that apply to most people, like colon cancer screening at age 50.

Woman-and-woman-icon.svgAll cisgender women who have sex with women should consider…

  • Talk with their physician about their physical and mental health
  • Practice safer sex where possible to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Some sexually transmitted infections can be passed between women. If sexual toys are shared, consider using barriers or cleaning them between uses.
  • If under the age of 26, get the HPV vaccine. This will reduce the chance for cervical, vaginal, anal, and oral cancers.
  • Avoid tobacco, limit alcohol, and limit/avoid other drugs. If you choose to use substances and are unwilling to stop, consider using them in the safest ways possible. For example, consider vaporizing marijuana instead of smoking, or participate in a clean needle program.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Women who have sex with women are more likely to be overweight than their heterosexual peers. Being overweight is associated with heart disease and a lower quality of life.
  • Exercise regularly. Weight bearing exercise, like walking and running, is best for bone health. But anything that gets your heart rate up and gets you moving is good for your body and mind!
  • Seek help if you’re struggling with self injury, anorexia, or bulimia. These issues are much more common in women than in men, and can be particularly challenging to deal with.
  • Consider taking folic acid supplements if pregnancy is a possibility. Folic acid prevents some birth defects.
  • Discuss their family’s cancer history with their physician.

Your physician may wish to do other tests, including…

  • Cervical cancer screening/Pap smear. All women with a cervix, starting at age 21, should get a pap smear every 3-5 years at minimum. Human papilloma virus (HPV) testing may also be included. More frequent pap smears may be recommended if one comes back positive or abnormal.
  • Pregnancy testing, even if you have not had contact with semen. Emergency situations are where testing is most likely to be urged. Physicians are, to some extent, trained to assume a cisgender woman is pregnant until proven otherwise. If you feel strongly that you do not want to get tested, please discuss this with your physician.
  • BRCA screening to determine your breast cancer risk, if breast cancer runs in your family. They may wish to perform other genetic testing as well, and may refer you to a geneticist.
  • If you’re between the ages of 50 and 74, mammography every other year is recommended. Mammography is a screening test for breast cancer. Breast self exams are no longer recommended.

One note on sexually transmitted infections… some lesbian and bisexual women may feel that they are not at risk for sexually transmitted infections because they don’t have contact with men. This is simply not true. The specific STIs are different, but there are still serious infections that can be spread from cis woman to cis woman. Infections that cis lesbians and bisexual women are at risk for include: chlamydia, herpes, HPV, pubic lice, trichomoniasis, and bacterial vaginosis (Source). Other infections such as gonorrhea, HIV, and syphilis are less likely but could still be spread. Please play safe and seek treatment if you are exposed or having symptoms.

Want more information? You can read more from the CDC, Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, and the United States Preventative Services Task Force.

Apr 112016
 

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a major cause of illness. It particularly effects men who have sex with men (MSM) and trans women. Most studies of HIV and HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) lump MSM and trans women into one group. As if gay men, bisexual men, and trans women all have similar risk factors. In fact — they don’t. They are very, very different groups.

Truvada, the only FDA-approved PrEP preparation

Truvada is the only FDA-approved PrEP preparation right now

For most of the history of HIV, barrier methods and abstinence have been the only ways to prevent the spread of HIV. Today we have treatment-as-prevention and pre-exposure prophylaxis. Treatment-as-prevention involves treating people affected with HIV with HIV-suppressing medications. By reducing the number of viruses a person is carrying around with them, the chances that any one virus can infect another person go down.

Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) has been available since 2012. It involves taking an HIV-suppressing drug every day. That way, if an HIV virus actually comes into contact with that person the virus won’t be able to infect them. Only one medication is currently approved for use in the United States, and that is Truvada. PrEP prevents HIV infection when taken every day at the same time. All HIV infections that have happened to date while a person was on PrEP occurred because the person took PrEP inconsistently.

This week we look at a study exploring the use of PrEP and HIV risks among trans women specifically. To my knowledge no study until this one has separated out MSM and trans women.

This is important! Not only are trans women at high risk for being infected with HIV…but there have been few HIV prevention guidelines and interventions directly targeting trans women. Both the WHO and CDC HIV PrEP guidelines do not include trans women.

This paper examined data from the iPrEx study, which was a study of the use of PrEP among people assigned male at birth in the US, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, South Africa, and Thailand. This paper in particular examined differences between trans women and MSM in the iPrEx trial.

What kinds of things did they find?

First — 15% of the participants in the trial were trans woman. They either identified explicitly as trans, or identified as a woman when asked. Compared with MSM participants, trans women were more likely to…

  • less education
  • have more sexual partners and have a history of sex work (64% vs 38% of MSM)
  • more likely to live alone (23% vs 14%)
  • less likely to use a condom for receptive anal sex (14% trans women used a condom vs 45% of MSM)
  • were more likely to use cocaine or methamphetamine (11% vs 7% of MSM)

Not the most heartening information, but also not brand new. It’s been known for a while that trans women do participate in sex work out of lack of options. Higher numbers of sexual partners, lower levels of condom usage, sex work, and substance use are all associated with HIV infection.

What about PrEP and HIV though? Trans women not on hormone therapy and MSM had similar levels of PrEP in their blood. That means they were taking the medications regularly and the medication was doing what it’s supposed to. And this wasn’t because of a hormone effect. The researchers did ask the participants how often they were taking their PrEP. Trans women on hormones were less likely to report always using PREP.

All the trans women who did become infected with HIV during this trial were taking PrEP at the time. In contrast, all the trans women who took PrEP regularly did not become infected with HIV.

It’s also good to note that there were no adverse drug effects noted in this trial. The PrEP medications did not cause significant harm. There were some changes to liver function tests and kidney tests. However those changes didn’t cause medically noticeable harm.

So what are the take-aways here?

  1. PrEP in trans women works when taken daily.
  2. There are significant differences between trans women and MSM. They should not be lumped together in one group.
  3. Further research on potential interactions between PrEP and hormone therapy should be done. This is just to be safe — we want to make sure that PrEP doesn’t effect hormone therapy and that hormone therapy doesn’t effect PrEP

Lastly — if you or your partner(s) are at risk for HIV infection, talk with your doctor about whether PrEP is right for you. It’s a great option in the fight to prevent HIV infection.

Want to read the study for yourself? The abstract is publicly available

Oct 052015
 

480px-RGB_LED_Rainbow_from_7th_symmetry_cylindrical_gratingI’ve been saying for years now that the phrase “LGBT community” is insufficient when it comes to health. It’s not one community — it is multiple communities. The social issues and health issues that a gay transgender man faces every day are different from the issues a bisexual cisgender woman faces every day. There are some similarities and grouping the communities together has been politically useful. But it should never be forgotten that L, G, B, and T all face different types of health concerns and have different civil rights battles to face.

A study came out in August that has to be one of my favorites this year. Researchers in Georgia surveyed over three thousand lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, transgender, gender non-conforming, and queer people. They asked about health behaviors of all kinds. And then they did statistical analysis, comparing the various genders (cis male, cis female, trans male, trans female, genderqueer) and sexual orientations (lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, queer, straight). Let’s look at what they found!

  • Diet and exercise: The researchers asked about fatty foods, eating while not hungry, quantity of vegetables and fruits eaten, and about hours and types of exercise. Transgender women had the least healthy diet of all genders. As a group, they were less likely to eat many fruits and vegetables, and more likely to drink sugared drinks and eat when they weren’t hungry. Both cisgender and transgender men were also less likely to eat many vegetables compared with other groups. Genderqueer people and gay cisgender men were most likely to exercise.
  • Substance use: The researchers asked about smoking tobacco and alcohol consumption. Cisgender men were the most likely to drink alcohol, binge drink, and to drink even when they didn’t want to. Participants who identified as queer were also more likely to drink. When it came to tobacco, transgender men and straight participants were the most likely to smoke.
  • Motor vehicle risk: The researchers asked about seatbelt use, speeding, and texting while driving. No clear differences for speeding were noted. Transgender men and straight participants were most likely to drive without a seatbelt. Texting while driving varied considerably; gay and lesbian drivers were most likely to text while driving.
  • Sexual behaviors: The researchers asked about frequency of unprotected sex and sex while intoxicated. Gay men were least likely to have unprotected sex while lesbian women were most likely to have unprotected sex. When it came to sex while intoxicated, only the bisexual participants stood out as being most likely among the groups to have sex while intoxicated.
  • Violence: The researchers asked about self harm and expressing anger at others. Overall rates of interpersonal anger were very low. Transgender men and pansexual people were most likely to self harm.
  • Medical risk taking: The researchers asked about delaying medical care and not following physician advice. Transgender women were least likely to seek care; 1/3 reported that they regularly delayed seeking medical care. Both transgender women and transgender men were more likely to not follow medical advice when it was given. Bisexual people were also more likely to delay seeking medical care compared to lesbian and gay participants.

That’s a mouthful, right? There are a lot of details I left out of this summary and it still threatens to be overwhelming with detail. So how we can break this down even more simply? By talking about the conclusions.

The researchers go into some possible causes for all these different results. Maybe gay men are safer about sex because of HIV risk. Maybe transgender men eat few vegetables because of cultural expectations that “men eat lots of meat and not many vegetables.” Maybe gay and lesbian people text more while driving because of the lack of community-specific messages.

Maybe. And they’re all good thoughts.

I tend to look forward more to what we can do with these data. I’m pretty happy with this study — it’s one of the broadest I’ve seen for inclusion. Few health-oriented pieces of research include pansexual and genderqueer individuals.

It’s important to remember that these results are at the group level. Any individual person who is a gender/sexual minority will have their own health behaviors and risks. They should be evaluated and treated as individuals. From a public health perspective though, this research brings valuable data. Only by knowing what each group faces can prevention, screening, and treatment campaigns be created. Only by knowing, for example, that transgender and bisexual people avoid seeking medical care can we then examine “why?” and act to remove the barriers so that appropriate, respectful medical care is available.

So — can we change the conversation? Instead of talking about “the LGBT community”, let’s talk about “the LGBT communities”. Or, even better, “gender and sexual minority communities” — removing the alphabet soup and expanding the definitions at the same time. This research is only the tip of the iceberg. We have so much more to explore.

The paper is published online ahead of print. The abstract is publicly available.

Sep 072015
 

In its August 27th issue, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published a paper reviewing primary health care needs of men who have sex with men. NEJM is one of the most prestigious American medical journals. It was home to the first paper detailing HIV infection in gay men. It’s one of the two major medical journals that my class has been urged to read weekly — part of our professional development as medical students.

What kinds of things does this review article recommend? And was it complete? Let’s take a look…

First is the recommendation to discuss a comprehensive and open sexual history. This should not stop at the classic “Are you sexually active?” question, but ask how the patient self identifies (gay, bisexual, etc), the kinds of sexual activity, the forms of protection used and the consistency with which they are used. Why? Because of HIV. Other sexually transmitted infections are a concern as well, but the big fear is HIV. Of all new infections in the United States each year, just under 2/3 are among men who have sex with men.

Other infections to be wary of include gonorrhea and chlamydia, Hepatitis A/B/C, and HPV. There has also been a rise in meningitis infections among gay men, caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis. Of these infections, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, HPV, and meningitis all have vaccines. Where possible, men who have sex with men should be vaccinated against these diseases. HIV and hepatitis C have no vaccine. To prevent them, barriers such as condoms and gloves can be used in sexual encounters and screening tests should be performed. Pre-exposure prophylaxis and antiretroviral therapy for HIV+ individuals can also be helpful for preventing HIV spread, but cannot and should not replace barriers.

Thankfully, this article was not all about the sex lives of men who have sex with men. Too often the lives of gay and bisexual men are distilled down to just their sex lives, particularly because of HIV. The author points out that men who have sex with men should be screened for substance use, depression and anxiety. However, they stop there. While asking about tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs is very important, there are other important aspects of the lives of gay and bisexual men that should be addressed. In particular, I would ask about…

  • Social support and living situation, particularly among young gay/bi men and older gay/bi men. Young men are at higher risk for being homeless because of family discrimination. Bullying also happens frequently among young gay/bi men. Older men may have lost their support group during the 1980s-1990s and may be facing the challenge of growing old alone. LGBT elders may face the prospect of going “back into the closet” to receive nursing home care.
  • Domestic violence. Same-sex domestic violence is under reported and specific resources are scarce.
  • History of assault or violence. Violence against men perceived to be gay/bi can have lifelong health consequences, including post traumatic stress disorder.
  • Attempts to self harm or suicide. These must never be ignored, no matter who one is talking to.
  • Diet and exercise. Eating disorders are known to occur in gay/bi men. Diet may be poor and exercise may be too low or too high, depending on the individual and his situation.

Yes, screening for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases is important. And this article did bring some specific health issues to a large audience. However it’s important not to distill men who have sex with men down to a cluster of diseases. Let this article be a spark for discussion, and not the be-all and end-all of primary care for men who have sex with men.

What do you think? Did I miss anything important in the things I would add?

A preview of the paper is publicly available.