In the past 24 hours, it feels like the entire world has been talking about the new “sex superbug” originally reported to have been found in Hawaii.  Of course, this caused some mild panic – since it really is a serious public health issue. But some of the original stories contained some inaccuracies.

Let’s look at what’s really going on.

History of the Sex Superbug:

A treatment-resistant strain of gonorrhea (HO41) has been identified in Japan but it is not the same one discovered in Hawaii (H11S8) back in 2011.

While researchers are still investigating, we do know that HO41 does not respond to ceftriaxone, the antibiotic that is used as a last-resort treatment for the sexually transmitted infection.

We also know that the HO41 strain hasn’t actually been detected anywhere since 2009 when a Japanese sex worker tested positive.  A small number of cases had also been seen in other countries but the incidents were isolated.

Officials have been trying to walk the fine line of attempting to reduce panic in the public while simultaneously stating that the threat does exist but will not likely be a real issue for another year or two.

Why is this a threat?

There are few, if any, symptoms of a gonorrhea infection. This is probably why it is the second-most common infection in the country.  In 2011, there were almost 322,000 cases of gonorrhea in the United States but these are the ones we know about.  In the absence of real signs, the CDC estimates that the actual number of cases could be closer to 700,000.

Now, what used to be an easily treatable infection has become a bit of a nightmare.  It’s mutating and, over the years, has become more and more resistant to available treatments.  There’s just one oral antibiotic, cefixime, that remains somewhat effective but that is only because the CDC advised doctors to stop using it when tests showed that it was on the verge of resistance.  Practitioners have begun combining ceftriaxone injections with azithromycin or doxycycline in an effort to control the spread of the disease.

A request for $54 million has been submitted to Congress with the goal of focusing on improving the diagnosis and treatment of gonorrhea.

In the meantime, the best approach is prevention. Practice safe sex through the diligent, proper use of condoms and maintain a monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner.  Since there are few symptoms, regular testing can be a major protection to yourself and others.

photo credit: estherase via photopin cc