CINCINNATI—Public health officials and health care providers across the U.S. have a watchful eye on the sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea. That’s because, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), new strains of the bacterium n. gonorrhoeae are progressively becoming drug resistant, meaning traditional methods of treatment may no longer work.
"It used to be one shot and you’re done, but unfortunately gonorrhea is becoming more and more resistant to the antibiotic treatments that were once effective,” says public health nurse and prevention researcher Donna Shambley-Ebron, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing.
While there have been no reported deaths from gonorrhea in the U.S., Shambley-Ebron stresses the need for public awareness because once common communicable diseases that become resistant to treatment "can be on our doorstep very quickly.”
According to the CDC, gonorrhea is a bacterial infection transmitted via intercourse, oral sex or anal sex. The CDC estimates that there are 20 million new infections in the U.S. each year, and untreated gonorrhea can cause serious and permanent health problems in both women and men.
The number of infections is likely higher, the CDC reports, because not everyone experiences symptoms.
• The common symptoms in men include: a burning sensation when urinating, white, yellow, or green discharge from the penis that usually appears one to 14 days from the time of infection or painful or swollen testicles.
• Like men, the initial symptoms in women can include a painful or burning sensation when urinating but many times women with gonorrhea do not have any symptoms; when they do they are often mild and can be mistaken for a bladder or vaginal infection because of increased vaginal discharge or vaginal bleeding. Even without symptoms, women with gonorrhea are at risk of developing serious complications from the infection.
• Symptoms of rectal infection in both men and women may include discharge, anal itching, soreness, bleeding or painful bowel movements. Rectal infections may also cause no symptoms. Infections in the throat may cause a sore throat, but usually cause no symptoms.
What concerns Shambley-Ebron about drug-resistant gonorrhea, she says, is that because it’s sexually transmitted, there is often a lack of attention paid to the disease by the very population it affects most: young adults who have grown up with easy and effective treatments.
"Risky behavior doesn’t carry the immediate acute illness and death that it once did as with the beginning of the AIDS epidemic,” she says. For example, she says, "Instead of seeing sick people dying with AIDS, we see healthy people living with HIV so we have lulled people into thinking there is no danger.”
The fear of contracting gonorrhea will rise, she says, if new antibiotics aren’t continually developed and morbidity from the disease increasingly threatens the public’s health.
The best personal defense against contracting gonorrhea, say CDC guidelines, is the same as with any sexually transmitted disease: Latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, can reduce the risk of getting or giving gonorrhea. The most certain way to avoid gonorrhea is to not have sex or to be in a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected.