STD Awareness: Is Mouthwash a Match for Gonorrhea’s Superpowers?

Since the 1930s, we’ve enjoyed around eight decades of easily cured gonorrhea — at least in places with easy access to antibiotics — but experts fear those days are numbered. In the past year or so, cases of untreatable gonorrhea have occasionally made headlines.

Thanks to the powers of evolution, some bacteria have acquired the multiple genes necessary to withstand the onslaught of the pills and shots administered by doctors. Gonococci, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea, are starting to win this “arms race” with humans, whose antibiotic arsenals are losing effectiveness. And with gonorrhea on the rise, gonococci may be evolving at an ever-quickening clip.


In 1879, Listerine claimed to cure gonorrhea. Today, scientists are finally testing that claim. We await the results.


Oral Gonorrhea: The Silent Scourge

Many experts believe oral gonorrhea is a key driver of antibiotic resistance. These infections usually don’t cause symptoms, and without symptoms people usually don’t seek treatment. Without treatment, gonococci can hang out in a throat for up to three months.

After transmission by oral sex — and possibly even by kissing  — gonococci can set up camp in the throat, which is an ideal environment for acquiring antibiotic resistance. They might not be causing symptoms, but they’re not sitting there twiddling their thumbs, either. If there’s one thing gonococci love to do, it’s collecting genes like some of us collect trading cards, and the throat is a gathering place for closely related bacteria species that hand out antibiotic-resistance genes for their expanding collections.

Gonococci can easily scavenge DNA from their surroundings — say, from a dead bacterium — and patch long segments of these genes into their own DNA, creating genetic hybrids between themselves and other organisms. Last month, scientists from Indiana University caught this phenomenon on video for the first time.

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STD Awareness: UK Announces “Worst-Ever” Case of Gonorrhea

In late March, the BBC reported a story that was widely repeated in headlines across the world: “Man has ‘world’s worst’ super-gonorrhoea.”

The article told the story of a British man whose symptoms started in early 2018, about a month after he had picked up the bug during a visit to Southeast Asia. Once back home, his doctors were unable to cure it with the standard combination of azithromycin and ceftriaxone — “the first time the infection cannot be cured with first choice antibiotics,” the author wrote.


In most of the world, we don’t have a good picture of antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea.


Actually, a similar case of multidrug-resistant gonorrhea had been documented in the United Kingdom in late 2014, as noted in the New England Journal of Medicine. It was the first verified case to fail to be cured by the azithromycin/ceftriaxone combo — the infection didn’t go away until after the patient was given a double dose of both antibiotics, but by then it had been 112 days and the infection could have cleared on its own. By July 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) had noted that there had been multiple documented cases of gonorrhea that were “untreatable by all known antibiotics.”

What was different about the man in the BBC story was that his case of ceftriaxone-resistant gonorrhea had a higher level of azithromycin resistance than those that came before. While it may not have truly been the first case of multidrug-resistant gonorrhea that couldn’t be treated with the standard dual therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone, it was the “most serious.” Continue reading

STD Awareness: “Sounding the Alarm” Over Another Antibiotic-Resistant STD

In 2012, the New England Journal of Medicine ominously stated, “It’s time to sound the alarm.” What followed was a description of the evolution of gonorrhea to all antibiotics we have used to treat it, including the last ones we had left. They closed the article with a warning: “The threat of untreatable gonorrhea is emerging rapidly.”

This summer, just five years after that alarm bell was sounded, the New England Journal of Medicine’s prediction came true. Reports of untreatable gonorrhea surfaced, shared in a World Health Organization press release: “Data from 77 countries show that antibiotic resistance is making gonorrhoea — a common sexually-transmitted infection — much harder, and sometimes impossible, to treat.”


An STD most people haven’t even heard of is rapidly evolving antibiotic resistance.


So maybe we should listen when a medical journal talks about the need to “sound the alarm.”

Sexually Transmitted Diseases, the medical journal of the American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association, did just that in an editorial called “Mycoplasma genitalium on the Loose: Time to Sound the Alarm,” which accompanied two studies detailing antibiotic resistance in a little-known STD called mycoplasma genitalium, or MG for short.

“Let me get this straight,” you might be saying. “First you’re telling me there’s an STD called MG, which most people haven’t even heard of, and now you’re telling me I already need to worry about antibiotic resistance?” Continue reading

STD Awareness: The Curious Case of Chancroid

Haemophilus ducreyi arrange themselves in parallel rows, which researchers have called “railroad tracks,” “schools of fish,” and “fingerprints.” Image: Mike Miller, CDC

Earlier this year, I asked a room full of scientists and medical professionals to raise their hands if they’d ever heard of chancroid. Everyone sat there, motionless, confused by the odd syllables I had uttered — shan kroyd. If you’ve never heard of chancroid, you’re not alone.

Chancroid is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) brought to you by Haemophilus ducreyi, a type of bacteria that can pass through microscopic tears in the skin during sexual contact. When one partner is infected, there is a 1 in 3 chance the other will become infected. An infection can cause painful sores and swollen lymph nodes, most often in the genital region. About half of people with chancroid infections will experience “buboes,” or swollen lymph glands that might rupture. Before it could be cured with antibiotics, a persistent infection could cause permanent skin damage.


Humanity can make chancroid the first STD to go extinct.


One reason you probably haven’t heard of chancroid is that, in the developed world at least, it has mostly disappeared. In fact, researchers believe chancroid can be completely wiped off the planet — which would make it the first STD ever to be forced into extinction. How amazing would that be?

Chancroid has been hopping from loin to loin since at least the days of the ancient Greeks, and was common until the 20th century, when rates began to decline. Thanks to antibiotics, U.S. chancroid rates decreased 80-fold between 1947 and 1997, all but vanishing by the late 1950s. It was virtually unheard of until there was another spike in the 1980s, correlating with the crack epidemic. But, since 1987, cases have been steadily declining. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Is Gonorrhea Becoming “Impossible” to Treat?

Image: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease

Health authorities have been worried about it for a long time now, and we’ve been following it on our blog since 2012. The boogeyman? Antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, a strain of the sexually transmitted bacteria that is becoming more and more difficult to treat. Higher doses of the drug will be needed to cure stubborn cases of gonorrhea — until the doses can no longer be increased. Then, untreatable gonorrhea could be a reality.


“Little now stands between us and untreatable gonorrhea.”


The World Health Organization (WHO), in a press release last month, finally used the word “impossible” when describing treatment of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, referring to documented cases of gonorrhea that were “untreatable by all known antibiotics.” Worse, these cases are thought to be the proverbial “tip of the iceberg,” as there aren’t good data on antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea in many developing countries, where gonorrhea is more prevalent and epidemics could be spreading under the radar. Adding to this problem is the fact that gonorrhea rates are climbing worldwide, which is thought to be due to a number of factors, including the decline in condom use, the frequent absence of symptoms, inadequate treatment, and increasing urbanization and travel.

What will happen if gonorrhea can’t be cured? Your infection could clear up on its own, after a lengthy battle with your immune system, but we don’t know a lot about how long this could take (weeks? months? never?). Unfortunately, despite your immune system’s best efforts, gonorrhea doesn’t go out without a fight. Gonorrhea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can cause tissue damage to the reproductive organs resulting in infertility, ectopic pregnancy, and chronic pain. It can also cause scarring that blocks sperm’s movement out of the testes, resulting in epididymitis, which is associated with infertility, chronic scrotal pain, and testicular shrinkage. Furthermore, gonorrhea increases risk for HIV transmission and can be passed to a baby during childbirth. The CDC estimates that, in the United States alone, untreatable gonorrhea could cause 75,000 cases of pelvic inflammatory disease, 15,000 cases of epididymitis, and 222 extra HIV infections over a 10-year period. Worldwide, where gonorrhea and HIV disproportionately affect developing countries, these problems could get even more out of control. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Prevention vs. Punishment

Before antibiotics, syphilis could kill and gonorrhea was responsible for most cases of infertility. Both diseases could spread from husband to wife to baby, potentially destroying families. So you’d think medical breakthroughs in prevention and cures would be welcomed with open arms.

The actual history, like the humans who create it, is much more complicated.


Compassion, rather than fear and guilt, should guide medical practice.


During World War I, sexually transmitted diseases were a huge problem — second only to the 1918 flu pandemic in the number of sick days they caused (7 million, if you’re counting). The Roaring Twenties saw a sexual revolution, and by World War II, the military was once more fretting about losing manpower to debilitating infections that drew men away from the front lines and into the sick bays.

The armed forces did what it could to suppress prostitution and distract soldiers with recreational activities. But the human sex drive could not be contained: The vast majority of U.S. soldiers were having sex — even an estimated half of married soldiers were not faithful to their wives during WWII. Victory depended on soldiers’ health, so during both WWI and WWII, the military provided its sexually active soldiers with “prophylaxis,” medical treatments that could reduce risk for venereal disease — or VD, as sexually transmitted diseases were called back then.

Anyone who thinks condoms are a hassle or “don’t feel good” should read medical historian Allan M. Brandt’s description of a WWI-era prophylactic station, which soldiers were instructed to visit after sexual contact: Continue reading

STD Awareness: Gonorrhea’s Latest Dubious Honor

Wanted: Scientists who can develop novel antibiotics

A few years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put out a “greatest hits” list of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. More recently, in late February, the World Health Organization (WHO) followed suit with a dirty-dozen list of 12 “superbugs,” which was composed mostly of potentially fatal microbes that are becoming increasingly impervious to the drugs that once easily killed them. These are the bacteria WHO believes represent the greatest microbial threat to human health, and the list was compiled in the hopes of providing direction — and motivation — to pharmaceutical researchers who are desperately needed to develop new antibiotics.


Investing in antibiotic development now will save lives later.


A quick primer on antibiotic resistance: Antibiotics kill living organisms called bacteria, but like all living organisms, bacteria can evolve. Just as giraffes evolve longer and longer necks that allow them to eat more and more leaves, so too do bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics. For example, a resistant bacterium can evolve the ability to spit out the drug before it has a chance to kill it, or it can evolve structural changes to its cell wall that make it impossible for the drug to attach to it.

One superbug, classified as an “urgent threat” by the CDC and a “high priority” by WHO, stands out from the pack. Unlike the other bacteria in these lists, an untreated infection with this bug isn’t thought to be deadly — but it still wreaks enough havoc to merit special attention from such esteemed bodies as the CDC and WHO. That bug is Neisseria gonorrhoeae, and you have one guess what disease it causes. (If you said gonorrhea, you guessed right.) Continue reading