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A New Super Villain: Gonorrhea?

By Gary Bell

April 28, 2010

We used to call it venereal disease. Many preferred the more common term: "The Clap." Eventually, a more appropriate term evolved: sexually transmitted disease. Recently, the term "disease" has been exchanged for "infection." Whatever name it was called, we all knew that Gonorrhea, while embarrassing and painful, was also curable. In other words, many felt that is was just a minor inconvenience.

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Now comes new information that a strain of Gonorrhea may be evolving into a "superbug," a drug resistant bacteria that will be much harder to treat. Speaking at the Society for General Microbiology's spring meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland, Catherine Ison, a microbiologist with the Health Protection Agency in London, reported that the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has become multi-drug resistant and threatens to make the STI more and more difficult to treat. Gonorrhea infects approximately 700,000 Americans a year, with the highest infection rates in the U.S. among teens, young adults and African Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gonorrhea can infect the eyes, throat and mouth as well as male and female genital areas. For decades it has commonly been treated with first tier antibiotics such as Penicillin. Now, even newer medications such as ceftriaxone and cefixime may be becoming less effective. According to Dr. Ison, "choosing an effective antibiotic can be a challenge because the organism that causes gonorrhea is very versatile and develops resistance to antibiotics very quickly."

Multi drug resistance is not a new phenomenon. We have struggled with it for years in HIV treatment, as well as in treatment a variety of infections such as Staph, MRSA, and Campylobacter Bacteria (one of the most common causes of diarrheal illnesses in humans). One potential culprit to this phenomenon is the increase of antibiotic use in farm animals. Recently, "major increases in antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections in human populations have led to public health concerns regarding antibiotic use for non therapeutic purposes (i.e., not used to treat disease) in animals destined for food production," according to a statement by the Pew Charitable Trusts. "Bacteria are able to develop antibiotic resistance when exposed to low doses of drugs over long periods of time. To promote growth and weight gain, entire herds or flocks of farm animals are routinely fed antibiotics and related drugs at low levels in their feed or water -- a practice that has been identified as a major contributor to antibiotic resistance."

Gonorrhea is often asymptomatic in women and can be mistaken for a bladder or vaginal infection with symptoms such as painful urination and vaginal discharge. Men may experience a burning sensation when urinating as well as painful or swollen testicles. Untreated gonorrhea can cause infertility in both sexes, join infection and, when passed by a pregnant woman to her fetus, blindness and a life-threatening blood infection in babies. Moreover, sexually transmitted disease can make one more vulnerable to HIV infection.

Yet, as with most sexually transmitted infections, Gonorrhea is 100% preventable. The answer is not rocket science. It's about making better choices, knowing one's partner, getting screened for STI'S and good old fashioned safe (abstinence) and safer (condoms, dental dams, etc) sex.

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