Most people don’t fear the STI chlamydia quite like they do the dreaded herpes, even though it’s both really common (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there are nearly 3 million cases a year) and a major cause of infertility and ectopic pregnancy. Chlamydia can be cured with antibiotics, which likely explains why it freaks people out less. The problem, however, is that most women who are at risk don’t get tested nearly enough. There are efforts to change that, but we need more and better prevention efforts.
Now there’s a tendril of real hope about a vaccine. Science has published a study showing that vaccines administered to mice offered six months of protection against the disease. It’s a small start that could lead to further research in humans. Even if the end result is only a vaccine that offers temporary protection, that would be a huge boon. Risk for chlamydia varies dramatically over a woman’s life. Rates are much higher, for obvious reasons, in women under 25 and for women who have multiple partners in a year. Targeting at-risk people not just with testing but preventive vaccines could do a lot to curtail the disease’s spread.
It’s important to sound a note of caution here, because these findings are extremely preliminary. As anyone who has seen the endless news items about how we’re going to get a new form of male birth control any day now can attest, there’s a lot of promising research in sexual health that ends up going nowhere.
That said, this story is important for big-picture reasons. As the public panic over the HPV vaccine has demonstrated, there’s still a lot of anxiety over novel approaches to sexual health care, which many fear are tantamount to giving “permission” to have sex. That fear perpetuates a sexual double standard and treats a normal and happy part of human life like it’s some kind of tragedy to be avoided.
What we need is a countervailing narrative about how taking responsibility isn’t about “just say no,” but about accepting that sex is something nearly all of us do. Condoms are great, but vaccines offer more long-term protection and help normalize the idea that one can be prepared to have sex in the future, instead of just getting caught up in the moment.