By T.M. Bernard
Medically speaking, we all knew it was bound to happen; new strains of gonorrhea, a sexually transmitted bacterial infection, have developed that are non-responsive to antibiotic treatment.
For years, we’ve heard of other bacterial bugs becoming resistant to conventional modern medicine, and now our loins are the battlefront.
It’s disquieting information about the second most common STD in the United States; Score one for the bacterium, zero for our sex lives. Because a Sex Superbug – so named because it means the bacteria is essentially immune to all known antibiotics – raises the public health specter, especially in our modern day and age where long-term mutually monogamous relationships appear to be going the way of the Do-Do bird.
A Gonorrhea Backgrounder
First, a refresher course in the basics of the disease that infects an estimated 700,000 a year in the US alone; in 2009, 300,000 cases were reported to the CDC, but the experts believe infections are grossly under-reported. Gonorrhea grows and multiples in the warm, moist areas of the reproductive tract, including the cervix, uterus and fallopian canals in women, and in the urethra in women and men. It can also infect the mouth, throat, heart valves, eyes, and anus. It’s spread through contact with the penis, vagina, mouth, or anus.
Men do not have to ejaculate to spread the disease to others. One of the fastest growing groups of infected people are young women ages 15-19, though babies can get it from mothers, and the over 50 crowd are coming down with venereal diseases in greater numbers too.
An often-symptomless STD, men with gonorrhea may present with signs of infection up to two weeks after contracting it. These include a burning sensation while urinating, a white, yellow or green discharge from the penis, or swollen testicles. It can also cause a painful condition of the ducts attached to the testicles that can lead to male infertility.
In women, the symptoms are more minor or non-specific, but the complications include pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), regardless of the severity of the infection. PID damages the fallopian tubes enough to also cause infertility or ectopic pregnancy (also life-threatening).
Some additional icky tidbits: Gonorrhea infections of the rectum include discharge, anal itching, soreness, bleeding, or painful bowel movements. Infections in the throat may cause a sore throat, but usually causes no symptoms, and recently, it was reported that health experts in Australia found two cases in which patients with gonorrhea of the throat didn’t respond to standard treatment.
In extreme cases, it can spread to the blood or joints. People with gonorrhea are more vulnerable to the HIV virus. Medications will not repair any permanent damage done by the disease, and people can get re-infected.
Deterrence in the New Sex Age
In a way, what’s old is new again; decades ago, the discovery of penicillin revolutionized how venereal diseases were handled (during WWII, ‘VD’ was a major public health crisis), but today, only one class of antibiotics, the cephalosporins, are still effective against gonorrhea. Deterrence in the new sex age may take bolder steps beyond multi-pronged treatment options, practicing safer sex, taking medicines as prescribed and finding new cures.
Susan Crain Bakos, an author and sex educator, spared no punches in her recent blog on super bugs and super marriages. Her recommendation – everyone, including self-declared monogamous and married couples, need a full STD panel every year; only a clean bill of sexual health demonstrates full sexual maturity.
Short of abstinence, the experts recommend the proper use of latex condoms, and total transparency with regards to sexual history and health status. Are we facing a doomsday scenario yet? Not likely, but gonorrhea has a history of being a challenge to eradicate, and considering the consequences to individual and public health, Crain’s suggestion are spot on. No one is immune, regardless of age, relationship status or sexual history, which means that we are all responsible to keep sex safer and reduce the proliferation of these Sex Superbugs.