You may have seen the headlines: super gonorrhea (worst superhero name ever) is spreading like wildfire. So what’s the panic all about? And what is super gonorrhea? Here’s what you need to know:
What is it?
Super gonorrhea is an antibiotic-resistant strain of gonorrhea, a sexually transmitted disease caused by infection with the Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacterium and spread through vaginal, oral, and anal sex. Gonorrhea is often asymptomatic, but symptoms in women can include increased discharge, bleeding between periods, and pain during urination. In men, they can include discharge and pain during urination, as well. About 78 million people get gonorrhea every year — but this new strain is worrisome because, unlike other strains, it’s not currently treatable with antibiotics.
What’s causing it?
The World Health Organization says there’s been a rise in drug-resistant gonorrhea for years in more than 50 countries — and it’s thanks in part to oral sex. “The throat infections act as a silent reservoir,” Emilie Alirol, head of the sexually transmitted infections program at the Global Antibiotics Research and Development Partnership, tells the New York Times. “Transmission is very efficient from someone who has gonorrhea in their throat to their partner via oral sex.” That’s because people often don’t have symptoms in that part of the body, Peter Leone, M.D., an infectious disease specialist, tells Men’s Health. And they’re outsmarting antibiotics every step of the way. “The bacteria that cause gonorrhoea are particularly smart. Every time we use a new class of antibiotics to treat the infection, the bacteria evolve to resist them,” said Dr. Teodora Wi, Medical Officer, Human Reproduction, at WHO, in a press release.
It’s also harder to diagnose, explains the New York Times — since there are usually fewer gonorrheal bacteria in the throat than the genitals, they’re easier to miss on a swab in the lab. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 30% of new gonorrhea infections each year are resistant to at least one drug. In 2006, the CDC had five recommended treatments for gonorrhea. Today, the U.S. has only one option remaining.
Why — and how — should you protect yourself?
Left untreated, gonorrhea can cause testicular and pelvic pain in men, and pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancies, and infertility in women. It can also be passed from mother to child during birth. And remember, it’s often asymptomatic — so it’s better to avoid in the first place rather than catching and trying to treat it. The best way to go about that? Use a lubricated condom — during vaginal, anal, and oral sex (dental dams can be use during oral sex on women, too) — and get yourself and your partner(s) tested.
What else being done?
Scientists are working on it, too — there’s a vaccine in the works, and three new drugs are in the development process. It will be awhile before those longer-term solutions are available, though, so make sure you’re practicing safe sex every single time you have it.