Super-gonorrhea is not as super as it sounds. Last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) released two rather daunting studies saying that this sexually transmitted disease is becoming increasingly more resistant to antibiotics, creating strains of “super-gonorrhea” that are tougher, if not impossible, to treat with the usual medicines. Just super, right?
Scientists are now saying that a driving force behind this growth of antibiotic resistance could be oral sex. It’s fairly well known that gonorrhea can infect the throat through oral sex, however it’s now becoming part of a bigger problem.
First of all, oral gonorrhea is way harder to detect. Approximately 90 percent of these infections show no symptoms, meaning many people don’t even realize they have it and could unknowingly spread it through unprotected oral sex.
“The throat infections act as a silent reservoir,” Dr Emilie Alirol, head of the sexually transmitted infections program at the Global Antibiotics Research and Development Partnership in Geneva, told the New York Times. “Transmission is very efficient from someone who has gonorrhea in their throat to their partner via oral sex.”
Secondly – and this is where it gets bad – an infection in the throat allows the gonorrhea bacteria (Neisseria gonorrhoeae) to mingle with other bacteria in the throat and covertly pick up antibiotic resistance. Anytime you take antibiotics to treat infections like a normal sore throat, this mixes with the gonorrhea species in your throat and over time can result in resistance.
Oral sex isn’t the only suspect though. Decreased condom use, increased urbanization and travel, poor infection detection rates, and inadequate or failed treatment all contribute to this increase, according to the Drugs For Neglected Diseases Initiative.
Each year, an estimated 78 million people are infected with gonorrhea worldwide. Most cases are picked up through unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex. The genital symptoms do not always appear, but when they do, they can include a rather unpleasant mix of a burning sensation when peeing, a green-yellow discharge from the penis, or an unusual increase in discharge from the vagina. Left untreated, it can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility.
Of course, all this unpleasantry can be avoided if you use a condom and practice safe sex.
The pipeline of new drugs to fight against gonorrhea is relatively empty, although just this week a new antibiotic class was found to be effective against gonorrhea in lab conditions. On a side note, a randomized controlled trial in the British Medical Journal from last year also showed that Listerine, the widely used mouthwash, “may be a potentially useful agent for gonorrhea control.” Although an interesting idea, it wouldn’t address the problem of genital infections, which commonly co-exist alongside a throat infection.