Expert warns 'slut-shaming' could stall access to STI vaccines

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A US trial has taken the world one step closer to a vaccine for chlamydia. But if the HPV vaccine is anything to go by, it might face some roadblocks before getting to the public.

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We may be one step closer to a chlamydia vaccine after a successful first clinical trial in the United States.

Chlamydia is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) globally. The World Health Organisation estimates some 127 million cases are diagnosed every year.

Government records show it's the 'most frequently reported sexually transmitted infection in Australia'. The infection rate has increased exponentially over the last two decades from 73 cases per 100,000 people in 1999, to 379 infections per 100,000 people in 2017.

While it doesn't come with the painful physical symptoms other STIs carry, chlamydia can have long term complications including pelvic pain and fertility problems - especially in women.

Researchers tested two variations of a potential vaccine on a small group of healthy women.

When comparing the results to a placebo group, they found two positive signs: both versions were found to be safe, and they both showed an 'immune response' different to that of the placebo group.

It's being hailed as a pass in a 'major test' for the product. However, it's understood there's still years of development before a chlamydia vaccine will be widely available.

And even then, experts warn a successful product will face a raft of significant - non-scientific - hurdles.

The stigma - and effects - of so-called ‘slut vaccines’.

Scientists have been pursuing vaccines for STIs for a number of years.

The Feed spoke to Associate Professor Dr David Hawkes, an active member in the Australian National Cervical Screening Program. He's also an advocate for the Gardasil HPV vaccination, that's been widely used in the country since 2006.

Dr Hawkes warned that a chlamydia vaccine could face the same hurdles as other STI vaccines that have been developed - primarily, false perception that they will lead young girls into promiscuity.

The HPV vaccine has faced such criticism, particularly overseas.

There were certain political candidates in the US that referred to it as the 'slut vaccine'," Dr Hawkes told The Feed.

Major US conservative groups also campaigned against having the Gardasil vaccine introduced into public schools.

In 2012, A Canadian bishop outright banned the vaccine from Calgary Catholic schools on "religious grounds'.

There have been similar criticisms closer to home. In 2006, then-MP Barnaby Joyce was quoted saying:

"There might be an overwhelming backlash from people saying, 'Don't you dare put something out there that gives my 12-year-old daughter a licence to be promiscuous'," he said.

Joyce argued against making the vaccine readily available due to 'social implications' - but says the comments were taken out of context.

While there have been studies confirming that the HPV vaccine does not change sexual attitudes, the myth still remains.

"It's a tough one because the vaccine is most effective before sexual debut," Dr Hawkes told The Feed.

"HPV vaccine is a protection against cervical cancer later in life and there was still outrage.

"There would be a lot of parents who would be very uncomfortable giving their 12-year-old vaccine against chlamydia."

I can absolutely understand why that would be a harder sell than measles, mumps or rubella where there are no moral issues.

Hawkes says that due to its link to cervical cancer, the HPV vaccine is slowing being accepted as life-saving, but vaccines against other STIs could be just as important.

"Particularly when a lot of these diseases are silent but can end up affecting women's fertility later in life," Hawkes said.

While a vaccination for chlamydia might seem far off, there are things that the Australian government could do now to reduce the prevalence of the disease.

"There is a recommendation that every sexually active person under the age of 30 to be tested every year, irrespective of whether they have symptoms or not," Hawkes said.

"That's something that's not being done in Australia but it's something that we could be doing tomorrow that would reduce the amount of chlamydia and gonorrhea in the community."

Hawkes says that at the end of the day, STI vaccines are about preventing disease.

"We don't have to wait for a vaccine, we can take ownership of our health."

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