Reports of a drug resistant strain of gonorrhea that were supposedly found in parts of America and could have been “worse than AIDS” are, as it turns out, untrue. Here’s what happened and what you need to know.
Last week, the Associated Press and a number of other news agencies and sites including CNBC ran a story about an antibiotic resistant strain of gonorrhea that one doctor announced could be “worse than AIDS.” Here’s an excerpt from one such story:
“This might be a lot worse than AIDS in the short run because the bacteria is more aggressive and will affect more people quickly,” said Alan Christianson, a doctor of naturopathic medicine.
“Getting gonorrhea from this strain might put someone into septic shock and death in a matter of days,” Christianson said. “This is very dangerous.”
“It’s an emergency situation,” said William Smith, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors. “As time moves on, it’s getting more hazardous.”
The gonorrhea strain in question, HO41, was discovered in Japan two years ago in a 31-year-old female sex worker who had been screened in 2009.
The CNBC report, like AP reports, went on to say, “The bacteria has since been found in Hawaii, California and Norway.”
This story quickly went viral. Except it isn’t true.
Three main drugs are used as front-line treatments against gonorrhea. These are injectable ceftriaxone, to which the Japanese H041 was resistant, along with two other antibiotics, azithromycin or doxycycline.
While any drug-resistant strain is concerning, those found in Hawaii and elsewhere are not the same as that found in Japan in 2009.
In the Hawaii cases, which first emerged in May 2011, the strain was in fact H11S8, which has been found to be resistant to the antibiotic azithromycin. This known problem was and is easily remedied in follow-up by administering a different antibiotic.
Moreover, as state and federal health officials were keen to point out, the strain found in Japan has never been found outside of Japan’s borders.
Nikki Mays, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), confirms that the H041 strain of gonorrhea has not been detected in the United States.
“Ceftriaxone is the drug the CDC recommends for the first-line treatment of gonorrhea. This strain hasn’t been detected elsewhere, and ceftriaxone resistance has not been detected in the United States.”
In addition to this, Peter Whiticir from the State Department of Health’s STD Prevention Control department, has reportedly clarified:
“There is no multi-drug super resistant superbug yet in Hawaii or the United States. We don’t have the superbug in Hawaii that I repeat again, but I think it does raise people’s consciousness that gonorrhea is out there, there are new strains that are developing and evolving and we need to be aware of that and protect ourselves.”
There is another important falsehood that needs correcting.
The AIDS comparison made by Alan Christianson, a so-called “expert” “naturopath” (an often anti-vaccine and suspect so-called “alternative” medicine) is entirely ill-conceived and greatly muddies what is the true problem by giving a false comparison.
No fatalities in cases of antibiotic resistant gonorrhea have been reported. The idea floated by Christianson that the strain could put sufferers into septic shock has also been rejected because the odds of that happening are incredibly low.
“I disagree with the general comparison,” Dr. Bruce Hirsch, an attending physician in infectious diseases at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., is quoted as saying. “The rate of complications from gonorrhea in terms of systemic problems is so much lower than the rate of complications from untreated AIDS infection.”
This is an opinion echoed by Dr. Carlos del Rio, chair of the Global Health Department at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, who is quoted as saying, “At this point in time, AIDS is a fatal infection. There really is no reason to compare it to anything else.”
It is true, however, that experts agree that drug-resistant gonorrhea, like other infections, remains a serious problem, and one that the U.S. may only be a couple of years away from having to tackle.
Drug-resistant “superbugs” that cannot be treated with existing front-line treatments are frequently touted as one of the most taxing problems facing modern medicine because they will force a need for new treatment frameworks that will require a radical departure from medicine’s current practices and a massive amount of monetary investment.
The CDC estimates that in the U.S., there are around 20 million STIs diagnosed every year which results in medical costs of around $16 billion. More than 800,000 of reported STI cases are gonorrhea infections. Most of these present in people between the ages of 15 and 24.
It is vital, then, that the effectiveness of remaining treatments is protected and, in terms of fighting STIs, that sex education rather than failed abstinence-only policy is put in place to stress that a simple way to protect from STIs, and therein negate the need to use antibiotics, is to practice safe-sex using a condom.
If anything good can come from this scare story, then, it is the chance to restate how we must carefully control our antibiotics use because there will soon be a day when current antibiotic treatments will not be enough to fight off infections, and that we must take greater steps in educating the public, especially young people, concerning the wider dangers of unprotected sex.
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