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

Oct 172016
 
Barriers are not always as obvious as a wall

Barriers are not always as obvious as a wall

Although many want to, not all transgender people are able to medically transition. The transgender community has been vocal about their needs and the barriers to medical care. However we still need research literature on the topic. Some research has been done, but not enough. Today’s study looked closer at who is receiving medical transition treatment and who hasn’t, and why they haven’t been able to get treatment.

As a quick reminder, medical transition is the medical treatment transgender people receive to treat gender dysphoria. Medical transition physically changes a person’s body from looking like one sex to looking like another. It usually includes hormone therapy and surgery. For more information, I recommend reading Trans 101 for Trans People.

Back to our study! Sineath et al polled transgender people who attended the Southern Comfort Conference (SCC). SCC is a yearly conference dedicated to education and networking in the transgender community. Of the 453 participants who stared answering the survey, 280 completed it. Participants answered demographic questions. They also answered questions about the medical therapy they had received and wanted to receive. There was a free writing section where participants could detail why they had not received any treatments they wanted.

That’s rather striking change between those who started the survey and those who finished it. And unfortunately there were differences between the group who finished it and the group who did not. Those who finished it were more likely to be college educated and trans women. That means that trans men and less well educated people were under represented in this study. While I don’t think there was much that Sineath et al could have done to prevent it, this does mean that the results should be taken with a grain of salt.

What did Sineath et al find?

Of the 280 participants who completed the survey, the majority (84%) were trans women. The rest (16%) were trans men. In this sample, trans women were more likely to be white, in a relationship, and over the age of 40 than trans men.

59% of participants had used, or were currently taking, hormone therapy. Roughly equal percentages of trans men (63%) and trans women (58%) had ever had hormone therapy. Among those who had never had hormone therapy, 53% of trans women and 76% of trans men planned to have it.

Trans men were far more likely to have gotten chest surgery (26%) or want it (88%) than trans women (5% and 40%, respectively). Of all 280 participants, only 11 (3.9%) had received genital surgery. All 11 were trans women. Roughly equal proportions of trans men and trans women wanted genital surgery.

Interestingly, nonwhite and single participants were more likely to have received hormone therapy than white and partnered participants.

I confess, I would have thought that the white people would have had more hormone therapy than non-white people. White people tend to have more resources. Perhaps there are also more barriers though? There are resources specifically aimed at non-white trans people, and perhaps they’re being especially effective. I am not entirely certain what to make of this. If you have ideas, let me know in the comments!

As for single trans people being more likely to have hormone therapy than partnered, that is more immediately understandable. Married or partnered trans people may be negotiating their transition with their partner. Or they may be waiting for children to grow. Either way, a delay makes sense.

What barriers were keeping people from getting medical transition?

There was also a significant difference in why participants had not received medical care between trans men and trans women. For trans men, lack of qualified care was the most dominant factor. 41% of trans men in this study cited that reason. Another 29% cited cost. A scattering of others cited fear of surgery (6%), employment issues (6%), and “other” (18%).

Trans women had a different distribution of concerns. Cost was the most commonly cited reason for not getting medical transition (23%). Employment issues was second largest, at 19%. Others cited age (9%), readiness (9%), needing a psychiatrist letter (7%), not feeling like they needed surgery (6%), fear of surgery (4%), and inability to access qualified care (2%). 21% cited “other” reasons.

What does all this mean?

This study found that 59% of trans participants use hormone therapy. That’s much lower than other studies. According to Sineath et al, previous studies found rates anywhere from 70% to 93%. Why the discrepancy? Studies with high levels of hormone therapy usually were conducted at clinics. Clinics are where participants actively seek hormone therapy! That explains why 93% of trans people in some studies were on hormone therapy. But why the 70%? That number came from a one-time survey that wasn’t clinic specific. It’s difficult to say how many trans people actually do get hormone therapy across the entire US. The real number may be somewhere between 59% and 70%.

 

This study also found pretty significant differences in the barriers trans people reported. Trans men cited the lack of access to qualified care far more than trans women did. That makes sense. Trans women are far more represented in both popular and medical media. The medical care of trans women is often talked about. I see far more papers and case reports about trans women in the medical literature. More surgeons offer vaginoplasties than metoidioplasties or phalloplasties.

Trans women experienced issues with employment more than trans men. Again, this makes sense. Trans women typically have a harder time “passing” than trans men. Women are subject to employment difficulties and interpersonal violence more because they’re more visible.

I, personally, look at how many trans men are struggling finding qualified care. I’m listening most strongly to that. So much of the talk around transgender care is about trans women. It really is past time that trans men get as much, or more, focus.

Conclusion

Ultimately, this study is a solid contribution to our understanding of medical transition. Thank you to Sineath et al and all the participants at the Southern Comfort Conference!

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

Citation: Sineath, R. C., Woodyatt, C., Sanchez, T., Giammattei, S., Gillespie, T., Hunkeler, E., … & Sullivan, P. S. (2016). Determinants of and Barriers to Hormonal and Surgical Treatment Receipt Among Transgender People.Transgender Health, 1(1), 129-136.

Jul 182016
 

Transgender youth are a special population. Because of the relative novelty of treatment at any age much less for youth, data are scarce. A recent review article examining the published data on transgender youth was published. Let’s take a look at what they found.

First, how about prevalence? How many youth self identify as transgender? There are very, very, few studies that get good numbers on this. One study in New Zealand found that 1.2% of secondary school children identified as transgender, and 2.5% weren’t sure about their gender.

As we well know, being a gender and sexual minority can often be associated with health disparities. And this review reports on that too. Identifying as transgender was associated with negative psychological health. Specifically, being bullied, having symptoms of depression, attempting self harm, and attempting suicide were all more common in transgender youth than in cisgender youth. How much of that was because of discrimination and how much was because of gender dysphoria was not explored.

Researchers have also found that being transgender and having autism appear to go together. No one is quite sure why yet. There’s still a lot of research to be done to figure that out.

One interesting difference in the literature stands out to me, though. It appears that transgender men are more likely to self harm and transgender women are more likely to be autistic. Among cisgender people, cis women are more likely to self harm and cis men are more likely to be autistic. There are theories for why that sex difference exists, but there’s little to no agreement. It could be related to social environments, hormones, the environment in the womb, or any number of other factors. But the observation that transgender men and women more resemble their sex than their gender for self harm and autism is worth investigating further.

What about the effects of hormone therapy for transgender youth? Especially puberty suppression, which is the unique factor for their treatment? As a reminder, the treatment of transgender youth is largely based on the Dutch model. At puberty, children go on puberty suppressing drugs. They then go on hormones (and thus begin puberty) at age 16 and are eligible for surgery at age 18. There are efforts to deliver cross-sex hormones earlier, but the Dutch model is the standard that most of the research is based on. A Dutch study found that the psychological health of transgender youth improved after surgery. Their psychological health even equalled that of their cisgender peers! The researchers also found that youth continued to struggle with body image throughout the time they were on puberty suppression only. But their self-image improved with hormone therapy and surgery. None of the children regretted transitioning. And they said that social transition was “easy”.

One challenge to that particular Dutch study is that the Dutch protocol excludes trans youth who have significant psychiatric issues. A young person with unmanaged schizophrenia, severe depression, or other similar issue wouldn’t be allowed to start hormones. So the research was only on relatively psychologically healthy youth to begin with. It’s difficult to say if that had an effect on the study’s results. It’s also difficult to say whether the psychological health of a trans youth is the cause or the result of their dysphoria. A trans youth with depression might well benefit from hormone therapy, after all.

There are multiple questions still unresolved when it comes to treating transgender children. Does puberty suppression have a long term effect on their bones? Are there long-term physical or psychological health effects of early transition? How should children with serious psychological conditions be treated (besides the obvious answer — with compassion)? And on, and on.

The medical and scientific communities are working on answering these questions. But it will take time. And in the mean time — physicians and families do they best they can with what information we have. If you have, or are, a transgender youth please consider participating in a study so we can do even better for children in the future.

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

Mar 282016
 

In the United States, spironolactone is the oral anti-androgen of choice for trans women. It’s the cheapest and is well tolerated by most people. Outside of the United States cyproterone acetate, also known as Androcur, is the preferred drug. This week I take a look at this drug, how it works, and why it hasn’t been approved for use in the United States.

The chemical structure of cyproterone

The chemical structure of cyproterone

Cyproterone is an anti-androgen. It blocks androgen receptors, preventing testosterone and other androgens from having their effects. By blocking those receptors, it reduces the amount of testosterone in the body through a mechanism called negative feedback. Cyproterone is chemically similar to progesterone and has some progesterone-like effects as well. Outside of transgender care it’s also used for prostate cancer, as combination antiandrogen and hormonal birth control for cis women (e.g., Dianette), and for chemical castration of sex offenders.

It’s available both as a pill and intramuscular injection. The pill form should be taken every day at the same time after a meal. The dose often used for transition in the literature is 100mg/day. Anecdotally I’ve been told that lower doses, such as 25-50mg/day, have been used. The injection is given once every 1-2 weeks.

Cyproterone acetate is not risk-free and is definitely not for everyone. Most seriously, cyproterone is associated with liver damage. That damage can be severe. It can lead to liver failure even after the drug is stopped. Damage has been reported with doses over 100mg/day. Because of this, people on cyproterone should have their livers regularly monitored with blood tests. The drug should not be combined with other drugs that can cause liver damage. That includes alcohol and many prescription drugs. Individuals with known liver damage/disease should not take cyproterone.

There is also some question of whether the drug is associated with some cancers. In particular, liver cancer and some brain cancers. Specifically, hepatocellular carcinoma and meningioma are the cancers of concern. Researchers are still exploring this connection. Other negative side effects of cyproterone include allergic reactions and worsening of depression.

Many trans women are concerned about fertility. The effects of cyproterone alone, without estrogen, on fertility are somewhat known. Sperm count goes down with oral doses as low as 50mg. Infertility can happen in as little as 2 months. The infertility is reversible once cyproterone is stopped. Fertility returns anywhere from 3-20 months. But remember — no anti-androgen is a birth control method. Please use birth control if you or your partner are at risk of pregnancy.

In the literature, 100mg/day is the dose that seems to be preferred for transition. No cases of liver cancer in trans women have been reported. However some women do have higher levels of liver enzymes. That’s a sign that the drug is causing some damage to liver cells. Transdermal, instead of oral, estrogen is recommended to reduce potential liver damage and blood clots.

Cyproterone is a potential alternative for trans women. So why hasn’t the FDA approved it? That’s a little murky. I wasn’t able to find public document describing the reasoning. But the biggest reason cited by other sources is the concern of liver damage. The FDA is likely trying to do its job and protect the population from drugs that cause more harm than good. In its efforts it may well overstretch. Cyproterone only rarely causes liver problems, and those problems can be screened for with regular blood tests. However it’s important to remember that there are safer alternatives still available. Spironolactone and the GnRH agonists (puberty blockers) are generally safer and mostly well tolerated. Other androgen receptor blockers (e.g., bicalutamide), while not in common use for trans care, are also available and have lower rates of liver damage. So there’s little pressure on the FDA to approve a riskier drug.

So in summary — cyproterone is an androgen receptor blocker in use outside the United States for trans care, prostate cancer, and birth control. It’s biggest side effect is potential liver damage. It’s not FDA-approved for use in the US probably because of that liver damage. People currently using the drug should be under a physician’s supervision.

Want to learn more? The wikipedia article on this drug is super excellent!

Note on references — I pulled most of my information from LexiComp, which I have access to through my university and can’t easily reference. However, prescribing information is publicly available and has much of the same information.

Jan 112016
 

Happy new year! I hope everyone had a safe and relaxing holiday season. And welcome back! Thanks, as always, for sticking around while I took care of other business. Let’s get started.

~~

Vocal cords -- the source of our voice and pitch

Vocal cords — the source of our voice and pitch

This week’s article comes out of Sweden, and asks the question “When we measure voices in the lab, how quickly and how well does testosterone change the voice of trans men?” Testosterone’s effects on voice have been the subject of blessings and curses (by trans men and trans women, respectively) but have received little attention by researchers.

This study was relatively simple — invite 50 trans men to participate, ask them to read into a machine every 3 months as they start testosterone, survey them, and look at their testosterone blood levels.

The men in this study varied in age, from 18 year old men just swapping from puberty blockers to testosterone to 64 year old men. All had never taken testosterone before. Testosterone forms included both intramuscular injection and transdermal (patches/gels/creams). By 3 months into treatment all the men had male testosterone levels in their blood.

So now that we know a bit about who participated…what happened in this study?

Every three months the men came into the lab and were recorded reading. The pitch and force of their voice was analyzed. Most of the study’s details of how they analyzed it is beyond me (I don’t have a foundation in voice analysis), but the results are clear. By 12 months on testosterone their voices had stopped changing. The most change happened in the first 6 months. On average their voices went from a fundamental frequency of 192 Hertz (Hz) at the beginning to 155 Hz after 3 months and finally ended up at 125 Hz. If you want to hear what those sound like, plug those numbers into this website. There was a lot of variation where their voices started out at, and a lot of variation what their voices changed to. Six of the men stayed around 143-170 Hz. Ten men started out lower than 175 Hz.

Fundamental frequency is a fancy term for pitch. On average cis men range from 85 to 155 Hz, and cis women range from 165 to 255 Hz, for reference. The type of testosterone didn’t seem to have a big effect on when voices changed or what they changed to.

What about how the men felt about their voices and whether or not the change was heard by others? The lower the pitch, the more satisfied the men felt about their voice and the more likely they were to report that they were correctly gendered on the phone. By the end of 12 months satisfaction with their voice was higher, with the most change happening between 3 and 6 months.

But it wasn’t all positive for every participant. Twelve men of the 50 also sought voice therapy. Reasons varied from vocal fatigue to the voice not being low enough to instability, strain, or hoarseness. They attended an average of 3 vocal therapy sessions. How well those sessions helped wasn’t measured.

So what’s the important stuff to take away from this study?

  • After 12 months most trans men’s voices have dropped into the male range, but individual results vary.
  • The most significant change in voice happens in the first 6 months of testosterone treatment, but changes continue to 12 months.
  • Some trans men may desire voice therapy during that first year

It’s also worth noting that this was the first published longitudinal study of trans male voices and how they change on testosterone.

What do you think? Do the study results reflect your own experiences or the experiences of your friends and loved ones? Did the researchers miss anything big? Let me know in the comments!

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