May 292017
 

Medical transition for trans people has only been available in the United States since the 1970’s. Because it’s so new we only have limited data about long term risks and benefits. When I was first learning about trans health I was frustrated by the lack of data. Are trans women protected from heart attacks like cis women are? Do trans men have lower risk for osteoporosis like their cis men peers do? We simply don’t know.

Today’s study is an exploration of the long term morbidity and mortality of trans people who have had surgery. Morbidity and mortality are just fancy words. Morbidity refers to disease or suffering. For example, morbidity may refer to how many people had a heart attack but are alive. Or how many people live with depression, or low back pain. Mortality is how many people died.

Who did they study?

Simonsen et al took advantage of the Denmark health system. In Denmark, there is one national health system. So they were able to look up how many trans people there are in Denmark. They were then able to figure out who had had gender-related surgery. Using medical billing codes, they looked at the diseases and disorders those trans people were diagnosed with. And they used death certificates to determine cause of death. They looked at records from 1970 to April 2014.

In total Simonsen et al looked at the records of 104 trans people. 56 were trans women and 48 were trans men. Surgery was performed between 1978 and 2010. So the patients with the most recent surgery would have been 4 years post surgery.

Most trans women (65%) started hormones age 22-42 and had surgery 9-23 years before the study. Trans men started at similar ages, 21-38 and had surgery 4-1

Beech trees in Denmark, where this study of morbidity and mortality was done

Beech trees in Denmark, where this study of morbidity and mortality was done

6 years before the study.

Their findings

In total, 20 trans people (19%) were diagnosed with a disease/disorder before surgery. That increased to 24 after surgery (23.2%). However, the difference wasn’t statistically significant. That means the difference was likely because of chance.

Diseases seen in this study included cancer, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disease, chronic lung disease, and alcoholic liver disease. Almost all of the diseases were related to behavior and not to hormone therapy or the surgery.

Cardiovascular disease was seen in 10.7% of trans women and 25% of trans men. Compare that to 3.5% of cis women and 4.4% of cis men. The high rate of cardiovascular disease is likely a result of smoking, since high rates of chronic lung disease were also soon. Chronic lung disease includes COPD, which is usually caused by smoking tobacco. Chronic lung disease was seen in 3.8% of trans people. In comparison, 1.3% of cis people had chronic lung disease. There was no difference between before and after surgery in either cardiovascular disease or lung disease.

In contrast, there was a difference seen with alcohol. Alcohol-related diseases were seen in 3.8 of trans people before surgery. After surgery that number dropped to zero.

Musculoskeletal disease was unique. It was found in 10.5% of trans people, compared to 13.9% of the general cis population. So musculoskeletal disease was the only one that trans people, as a population, had less of.

Cancer rates were also higher in trans people. 6.2% of trans men and 3.6% of trans women were diagnosed with cancer. The general population rates are 1.6% of cis men and 2.4% of cis women. The cancer rates seem to be because of increased risk of lung cancer from smoking, however Simonsen et al did not publish the details.

What about deaths?

10 trans people had died in Denmark between 1970 and 2014. That’s 9.4% of all the trans people in Denmark. The average age of death was 53.5 years. The average age of death for the general population in Denmark is 81.9 years for women and 78 years for men. The causes of death were mostly from smoking and alcohol abuse. However, two trans people committed suicide. One was 19 years after surgery, the other was 26 years after surgery.

What do these results mean?

First, that gender-related surgery for trans people does not increase the risk for medical disease. There was no change in disease before and after surgery.

Second, rates of cardiovascular disease, lung disease, cancer, and alcohol-related disease are higher in trans people than in cis people. Smoking tobacco and alcohol seem to be the cause, not hormones. And smoking and alcohol are likely because of stress from discrimination and gender dysphoria.

Third, the average life expectancy for trans people in Denmark is much lower than the general life expectancy. Again, this is because of smoking, alcohol, and suicide.

What are the caveats?

This was a tiny sample. While 104 trans people is a large sample for trans research, it’s a small sample to try to draw large conclusions from. Worse, some of the sub groups were miniscule. It’s near impossible to draw accurate conclusions from only 4 people with lung disease, or 2 suicides.

I was also surprised at the lack of HIV-related diagnoses in this study. HIV is prevalent in trans women in the US for complex reasons. Is the rate lower in Denmark? I don’t know.

And as always, this was one study in one country. Every culture and country is different, with different levels of discrimination and different cultural standards. So we can’t make assumptions about other cultures based on this one study.

Despite the limitation, this is an excellent exploratory study. We should continue to look for more data coming out of Denmark to see what more we can learn.

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

Feb 202017
 

“Brain tumor” are two words that strike fear into most hearts. They conjure images of thin patients with heads shaved and large fresh scars on their heads, of rapid neurological deterioration, and of sick children. Not all brain tumors are the same, however. Some are aggressive malignant cancer. Those are the bad actors like medullablastoma. They grow and spread quickly, and are very difficult to treat. Others are benign. These grow slowly, and either don’t spread or are very slow to spread. Benign brain tumors include meningioma, which we’re talking about today.

Meningioma is a tumor of the meninges, a thin layer that covers the brain. Meningiomas are benign. They don’t tend to metastasize (spread to other areas of the body). Instead, they grow and can grow enough that they squish parts of the brain. This causes headaches, loss of vision, and changes in thinking and mood.

Brain tumors are rare. So are meningiomas. They affect roughly 97/100,000 people. We don’t yet know exactly what causes them. But by looking are who tends to get them, we have some guesses. Exposure to radiation of the head seems to increase the risk. So does having a condition called Neurofibromatosis II. And meningiomas are more common in cisgender women than in cisgender men. Why? Because of hormones. Like breast cancer, meningioma can grow in response to estrogen or progesterone. Cis men who have been treated for prostate cancer (involving androgen deprivation therapy) are at higher risk. And perhaps trans women are too.

Today’s Paper

And that’s what brings us to today’s paper. We’ve covered meningiomas in trans women once before, but it’s time to take another look now that we have more data.

Today’s paper discusses three new cases of meningioma in trans women. In total now, 8 cases have been discussed in the medical literature. It’s a very small number, but enough to start seeing some patterns.

Of these three new cases, all were over the age of 45, were post-vaginoplasty, and were on cyproterone acetate along with an estrogen. All had surgery to remove the tumor, and they did well. The decision to continue hormone therapy was made on a case-by-case basis.

The authors noted a previous paper that found that cyproterone acetate was associated with meningioma. This was particularly true with doses above 25mg a day. Among the eight cases of meningioma in trans women in the literature, only one was not on cyproterone acetate. Doses ranged from 10mg to 100mg, with most being on 50mg or 100mg. The authors also found reports of higher rates of meningioma among people who use progesterone-like medications. Removing hormone therapy (especially cyproterone acetate) frequently helps to shrink the tumor.

What should you do with this information?

First, don’t panic about meningioma. It’s rare and benign.

There is no screening for meningioma. Instead, if you have any unusual symptoms like changes in your vision or headaches, talk with your doctor.

If you are a trans woman, consider taking the smallest dose of hormones possible. In general, high doses increase side effects and don’t help with transition. If you are diagnosed with a meningioma, have an honest conversation with your doctors about your hormone therapy.

And, of course, be sure to live as healthy a life as you can. Don’t go jumping into volcanos or nuclear power plants. Eat a balanced diet, get some exercise, avoid most drugs, and take care of yourself.

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

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

Aug 152016
 

Welcome back to Open Minded Health Promotion! This week we’re looking at health promotion for transgender women and individuals assigned male at birth. Depending on your history some of these tips will apply more or less to you.

TransgenderPlease remember that these are specific aspects of health in addition to the standard recommendations for everyone (e.g., colonoscopy at age 50). Based on your health and your history, your doctor may have different recommendations for you. Listen to them.

All transgender women should consider…
  • Talk with their doctor about their physical and mental health
  • Practice safer sex where possible. Sexually transmitted infections can be prevented with condoms, dental dams, and other barriers. If you share sexual toys consider using condoms/barriers or cleaning them between uses.
  • Consider using birth control methods if applicable. Hormone therapy is not birth control. Orchiectomy and vasectomy are permanent birth control options. You can still have vaginoplasty after those procedures if you desire. Alternatively, you can use condoms and asking your partner to use hormonal birth control.
  • Store sperm before starting hormone therapy if you want genetic children. Estrogen and anti-androgens definitely affect fertility. You may never be able to have genetic children after hormone therapy.
  • If you’re under the age of 26, get the HPV vaccine. This will reduce the chance for anal, oral, and penile cancers. Theoretically it may also reduce your risk for (neo) vaginal cancers.
  • Protect yourself from HIV. Consider using pre-exposure prophylaxis in addition to condoms in sexual encounters that are higher risk. Avoid selling sex if you can.
  • Avoid tobacco, limit alcohol, and limit/avoid other drugs. If you choose to use substances and are unwilling to stop, consider strategies to limit your risk. For example, consider participating in a clean needle program. Vaporize instead of smoke. And use as little of the drug as you can.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. While being heavy sometimes helps to hide unwanted physical features, it’s also associated with heart disease and a lower quality of life.
  • Limit high-potassium foods while on spironolactone if possible.
  • Exercise regularly. Anything that gets your heart rate up and gets you moving is good for your body and mind! Weight bearing exercise, like walking and running, is best for bone health. If you’re looking to avoid “bulking” up your muscles, cardio exercises are probably your best bet. Staying physically active is especially important if you have a family or personal history of cardiovascular disease.
  • Avoid buying hormones from online stores or on the street. There is no guarantee that you’re getting what you think you’re getting. Even if you do there is no guarantee that the drug was created in a safe lab or was stored properly. Drugs made in the US are guaranteed to contain what they said they do. They are also made in clean facilities and stored correctly so they don’t degrade. Additionally buying hormones online is far more expensive than getting a prescription and going to a pharmacy (especially with discount plans many pharmacies provide). Thus if you can get a prescription, doing so is less risky and far cheaper. For more information, see the FDA.
  • Do not inject silicone. It not only disfigures, it kills. Additionally unsafe needle practices risk spreading HIV and Hepatitis C.
  • If you’ve had genital surgery and you’re all healed from surgery, remember to continue to dilate and take care of your vagina. Keep in touch with your doctor as you need to. Call your surgeon if something specific to the surgery is concerning. Continue to practice safe sex. And enjoy!
Your doctor may wish to do other tests, including…
  • Prostate cancer screening. Vaginoplasty does not remove the prostate. Testosterone is one of the major drivers of prostate cancer. Therefore trans women are at a lower risk for prostate cancer. However, that risk may still exist. Your doctor may recommend a blood test or a digital rectal exam. They should discuss with you the benefits and potential harms of screening.
  • Breast examination for potential detection of breast cancer. We really don’t know yet how much risk trans women are at for breast cancer. Current data suggest that trans women are at low risk. However your doctor may wish to perform a breast examination as part of a physical exam. The goal of the exam is to detect lumps and/or bumps that may need further investigation. They may also teach you how to do a self-exam.
  • Mammography. Again, this is for potential detection of breast cancer. Some doctors recommend following the typical recommendations for cis women. However even those recommendations vary depending on the organization recommending them. Most recommendations include a mammography every 1-2 years starting around age 50. Thus once you turn 50, consider talking with your doctor about the need for mammography.
  • Vaginal examination. For post-op trans women, the vagina is either (penile) skin or intestine. Either way, it can still develop cancer. Some doctors recommend a visual inspection of the vagina to detect such cancers. Others do not.
  • Testicular/penile examination. As long as you have a penis and testes, your doctor may recommend examination. They look for potential cancer as well as hernias (the “turn your head and cough” test).

And most importantly: Take care of your mental health. We lose far too many people every year to suicide. Perhaps worse, far more struggle with depression and anxiety. Do what you need to do to take care of you. If your normal strategies aren’t working then reach out. There is help.

Want more information? You can read more from UCSF’s Primary Care Protocols and the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association.

Apr 252016
 

For many reasons, transgender women as a group are at high risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The types of STIs a trans woman is at risk for changes after vaginoplasty but doesn’t go away. Reports of (neo) vaginal infection by gonorrhea and chlamydia are rare, for example. Trans women with (neo) vaginas may be at higher risk for HIV because of the greater possibility of a vaginal tear. Relatively little is known about the risk for other STIs, such as the human papilloma virus (HPV). Today I take a look at a new paper on HPV infection in post-vaginoplasty trans women.

HPV, the Human Papilloma Virus

HPV, the Human Papilloma Virus

HPV is a virus spread by skin-to-skin contact. There are different types of the virus. Some types cause warts (NSFW link). All warts are caused by a version of HPV. Warts that are on the genitals or anus are caused by specific types of HPV that are considered sexually-transmitted infections (types 6 and 11). The warts can be uncomfortable or painful. They can be very small or grow to become large masses. Warts themselves are fairly harmless otherwise.

The types of HPV that don’t cause warts are more dangerous. Those include types 16, 18, 31, and 33. These types don’t cause warts, but they cause changes that can lead to cancer. Cancers that have been associated with infection include cervical cancer, vaginal cancer, anal cancer, penile cancer, and some throat/oropharyngeal cancers. As you can tell from where these cancers happen, these types of HPV are often sexually transmitted. Screening tests for associated cancers include cervical pap smear, anal pap smear, and testing for the virus.

HPV can be prevented by vaccine and by barriers such as condoms and dental dams. Most vaccines prevent both the cancer-causing and genital wart-causing types. There is no cure for infection. Treatment is limited to removal of warts and treatment for cancers.

What about HPV infection in post-vaginoplasty trans women? Since HPV is a skin-to-skin contact infection, the (neo) vagina can still be infected by HPV. What has been reported in the medical literature about HPV infection? This paper presented 4 cases of vaginal HPV in their clinic and summarized 9 reports that had previously been reported in the medical literature. So they discussed 13 reports of HPV total.

They only reported symptomatic HPV cases. So only women who were having pain, discomfort, or other symptoms from an infection were discussed.

Most of the women had had a penile inversion vaginoplasty. One woman had a sigmoid vaginoplasty, one had a “split skin graft” (NSFW) vaginoplasty, and one was unknown. Split skin graft is a technique that uses skin from elsewhere on the body, and is sometimes used for cis women who were born without a vagina.

Of the four new cases discussed in the article, all came to the clinic with pain, either vaginal or vulvar. Three of the four women had genital warts, which were removed. The fourth had a white discoloration (“leukoplakia”), also caused by human papilloma virus. The pain and symptoms of all four were resolved with treatment and the lesions did not come back. All four were HIV negative and had previously had penis-in-vagina sex with at least one cis man.

There was less reported about the 9 cases that had previously been reported in the medical literature. 7 out of the 9 had genital warts. 6 of those 7 had the warts successfully removed. The 7th had to have a vaginectomy to remove the warts. Of the two who did not have warts, one had vaginal cancer and had to have a vaginectomy and chemo. The last had a pre-cancerous lesion, and we don’t know what happened to her.

The types of treatment for warts varied. Some were removed successfully with medication. Others were removed surgically. Still others were removed with laser or electricity.

Ultimately — all these results sound like what happens with cis women. Warts happen, cause pain or distress, and are treated. Less commonly, HPV causes cancer or pre-cancerous lesions and that is treated.

What this article brings to attention is that trans women need HPV prevention as much as everyone else. HPV vaccination for people up to age 26 is recommended. For those older than 26, barriers during sex with partners is a useful tool.

UCSF recommends “periodic” visual examination of the (neo) vagina to look for changes that may be pre-cancerous lesions. But they don’t define what “periodic” means. Cis women get pap smears every 3-5 years; 3-5 years may be a reasonable range for trans women too, but we just don’t know for sure. So if you’re concerned, talk with your physician about screening.

Want to know more about HPV? The CDC has good information.

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