If you thought you knew everything about sexually transmitted diseases – think again. The discovery of a new and aggressive strain of gonorrhea, called H041, recently shocked the international health community. Japanese and European researchers early last year found that the strain is resistant to all known forms of antibiotics. While gonorrhea has been known to build a tolerance to most of the antibiotics used to cure it in the past, this strain is stumping researchers.
According to an Los Angeles Times article, development of sulfonamides in the 1940s provided the first breakthrough in the treatment of gonorrhea, but the bug soon became resistant, and physicians switched to penicillin. Since the 1970s, the bacterium has become tolerant to pencillin treatments, and physicians switched to cephalosporins (beta-lactam antibiotics). The newest trend is the pathogen’s apparent resistance to these cephalosporins, which is worrying physicians and scientists alike. If this resistance spreads, there will be no more drugs available to treat it.
About half of women and 2 to 5 per cent of men do not show any symptoms. When symptoms do appear, they include a burning sensation experienced while urinating and discharge of pus from the genitals. Women also experience pelvic pain, and any infected people are in danger of infertility as a result*
In a recent laboratory experiment conducted by a team headed by Dr. Magnus Unemo of the Swedish Research Laboratory for Pathogenic Neisseria, this specific strain of bacterium was grown with other types of gonorrhea, and the alarming finding was that this resistant strain could pass its resistance on to the other types of gonorrhea very quickly and increase their resistance to known treatments 500-fold. In a separate study by the Center for Disease Control of more than 6,000 gonorrhea samples obtained since 2000, most of the samples with increased drug resistance were obtained from men who have sex with men. This may be due to the fact that the anal membrane is highly sensitive, and is more prone to infection. Nevertheless, this situation is troubling since it is uncontrollable and incurable – a reminder of the AIDS epidemic of the 80’s.
Gonorrhea is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases in the world, with over 700,000 cases diagnosed in the United States alone each year. With this new strain, it is especially prescient to stress safe sex, and even abstinence, as well as discussing your previous sexual history with your partner.
For the time being all we can do is be safe, and stay informed.
*Disease epidemiology has thus far only studied according to a male/female binary, overlooking those who do not identify with such a dichotomy