At the beginning of this month, mainstream media outlets began to run dire headlines proclaiming the spread of an aggressive “sex superbug,” quoting a doctor who claimed it could be “worse than AIDS.” The breathless proclamations of an impending public health crisis stemmed from a report — published by the Associated Press, among other outlets — that a rare strain of drug-resistant gonorrhea had been detected in Hawaii. That would have marked the first time that the HO41 strain, which doesn’t respond to the last-resort antibiotic currently used to treat the STD, had been discovered within the United States.
“This might be a lot worse than AIDS in the short run because the bacteria is more aggressive and will affect more people quickly,” Alan Christianson, a doctor of naturopathic medicine, was quoted as saying in response to the initial reports about HO41. That was enough to spark speculation about the disastrous implications of an impending “sex superbug.” But much of the recent reporting has been overblown. Here are the facts you need to know about this gonorrhea threat:
The initial reports about the rare strain of gonorrhea got it wrong. State health officials clarified that the strain of gonorrhea discovered in Hawaii wasn’t actually HO41 at all. It was a different version of the sexually transmitted infection, H11S8, which is resistant to a different kind of antibiotic — and which isn’t as serious of a threat, since it can still be treated with the drug currently used as a last resort against gonorrhea. The Associated Press ended up retracting its initial story.
It’s not actually worse than AIDS. After initial reports of the sex superbug began to circulate, public health officials quickly responded to clarify that it’s not helpful or accurate to compare drug-resistant gonorrhea to the global AIDS pandemic. Gonorrhea patients don’t usually die from the condition, while the rate of death from untreated AIDS is a staggering 98 percent. “I disagree with the general comparison,” Dr. Bruce Hirsch, a physician who treats infectious diseases at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., emphasized.
It was not caused by comprehensive sex education. Earlier this week, a conservative Christian radio host Matt Barber said that liberals in general, and comprehensive sex education specially, caused the new strain of drug-resistant gonorrhea. “By telling children, ‘Don’t do as I say, do as I do’ with comprehensive sex education giving a wink and a nod…hey, it’s a free-for-all,” Barber explained. “Well, we are reaping what we have sewn in this nation.” In fact, comprehensive sex education instruction that includes information about preventing the spread of sexually transmitted infections has been demonstrably successful at equipping American teens with the tools they need to protect their sexual health. The strains of gonorrhea that resist antibiotic treatment were actually caused by a combination of two factors: gonorrhea can mutate fairly quickly, which allows it to evade drug treatment, and we aren’t developing new drugs quickly enough to keep pace.
Drug-resistant gonorrhea is a real public health threat. Despite the fact that the initial story about HO41 was wrong, public health officials are still cautioning Americans that gonorrhea is, in fact, growing resistant to antibiotics — and that’s a real problem. It’s troubling that there’s only one antibiotic left that can effectively treat the infection, especially considering the fact that gonorrhea is the second most common STD in the United States. For months now, the CDC has been recommending “urgent action” to stop the spread of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, particularly by studying and developing new antibiotic treatments. The National Coalition of STD Directors believes it could be a matter of just another year or two before untreatable gonorrhea really does spread throughout the country.
The rise of antibiotic-resistant diseases isn’t limited to STDs. Even outside of gonorrhea, antibiotic resistance is becoming a serious global health threat. At the beginning of this year, public health experts in England began to warn of an impending “antibiotic apocalypse,” a not-so-distant future when even common infections aren’t able to be effectively treated with drugs anymore. Drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis and whooping cough are beginning to pose a potential threat, and there’s new evidence that the growing number of superbugs in U.S. meat can spread to Americans. Even though major medical organizations have advocated for making the development of new antibiotics an international priority, that research has lagged behind over the past several decades — partly because that type of innovation isn’t as profitable for Big Pharma companies.