This Week in Sex: Meningitis Outbreak Update, Viagra Cures Menstrual Cramps, and a Male Birth Control Pill


This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Princeton Begins Meningitis Vaccinations, Another Outbreak Emerges in California

As RH Reality Check recently reported, Princeton University applied for and received a waiver from the Food and Drug Administration to begin providing a European meningitis vaccine that has not yet been approved for use in this country. An outbreak of the disease, which causes an inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, began with a few cases on campus in March and surprisingly did not end, despite most students leaving school for the summer. So far eight people at Princeton have been infected.

Students at Princeton, like at many other colleges in the country, are required to be vaccinated against meningitis, but the U.S. vaccine only covers sero-groups A,C,Y, and W-135; the current outbreak is caused by sero-group B. Starting this week, students were able to receive the European vaccine, which guards against this strain. Those who get the shot will need to return for a second dose in February. The university is paying to import the vaccine and providing it to students free of charge.

Across the country, at the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California (UCSB), students, parents, and administrators are watching events at Princeton carefully, as it is also facing an outbreak caused by sero-group B. So far, four students at UCSB have become ill. One of them, Aaron Loy, a freshman lacrosse player, had both of his feet amputated because of the illness. He remains in the hospital and is facing more surgeries.

The seriousness of Loy’s condition underscores the real danger of this disease, which is easily spread through coughs, shared food or drink, and other close contact like kissing. Though meningitis is rare and can be cured with antibiotics, about one in ten people infected will die from the disease, and 20 percent of those who survive suffer long-term health effects, including loss of limbs, hearing loss, and mental retardation.

Given these outcomes, many students and parents are wondering why UCSB has not also begun to vaccinate students. Thomas Clark, a specialist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who is overseeing the vaccination process as Princeton, explained to NBC News that every outbreak of meningitis is different, but most end after about four cases, which is how many UCSB has seen. The Princeton outbreak was deemed more dangerous because it reached eight cases and did not wane despite the extended summer break.

Clark says the CDC is keeping a close eye on the UCSB outbreak and that university officials and CDC representatives will decide if and when it seems necessary to start vaccinating students. In the meantime, more than 500 students who were in close contact with the four who got sick have received antibiotics as a way to prevent infection.

Though both outbreaks are of the same strain of the virus, they have different genetic “fingerprints” and do not appear to be related.

Viagra for Cramps?

For many women, menstruation is accompanied by lower abdominal cramps that can be quite severe at times. Women often reach for over-the-counter painkillers, like ibuprofen, or those marketed specifically for period pain like Midol or Pamprin (which offer differing combinations of aspirin, acetaminophen, caffeine, and diuretics). New research, however, suggests that the cure might be in the same little blue pill that made erectile dysfunction (ED) a household name.

In a study published in Human Reproduction, researchers from Penn State College of Medicines used sildenafil citrate—known to you and me as Viagra—on women with primary dysmenorrhea (PD), which is the medical term for recurrent menstrual cramps not caused by any underlying diseases. According to the researchers, ED drugs have been tried on pelvic pain before, and while they worked when taken orally, many women got bad headaches as a side effect. This time researchers administered the drug through vaginal suppositories.

The study involved 25 PD sufferers between the ages of 18 and 35. Half were given the sildenafil citrate and half a placebo. They were then monitored for four hours. The researchers found that after two hours the group given the drug scored significantly lower on one index designed to measure uterine contractions (which cause cramps and pain). Moreover, patients in this group reported that their pain had been alleviated and did not report any side effects.

Interestingly, the mechanism by which sildenafil citrate works is not clear. Researchers thought the drug would sooth pain by increasing blood flow, which is how it helps men achieve erections. They found that the drug did increase blood flow to the uterus, but that the placebo drug did so as well. They cannot yet explain why both drugs increased blood flow but only one alleviated pain.

The study was small and needs to be replicated with a larger sample, but researchers still believe the results are important. Dr. Richard Legro, who led the study, told Medical News Today, ”If future studies confirm these findings, sildenafil citrate may become a treatment option for patients with PD. Since PD is a condition that most women suffer from and seek treatment for at some points in their lives, the quest for new medication is justified.”

Of Mice and Men and Male Contraceptives

Researchers in Australia believe they are one step closer to a male contraceptive pill, after having made male mice infertile. Scientists were able to genetically modify the mice in order to block two proteins that are responsible for moving sperm during ejaculation. The mice were able to have sex normally and ejaculate, but there were no sperm in the ejaculate. The lead researcher of the study, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Scienceexplained it this way to the Australian press: “The sperm is effectively there, but the muscle is just not receiving the chemical message to move it.”

The treatment had no negative impact on the long-term viability of sperm in the mice, and researchers believe it would be completely reversible in men as well. In order to translate this success into humans, however, researchers will have to replicate the genetic modification they did in the mice with a chemical process. Despite this remaining hurdle, they believe that they can develop a pill for men based on these findings within the next ten years.

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Follow Martha Kempner on twitter: @MarthaKempner