The Internet is full of reports of a new "sex superbug" that is threatening the United States and is resistant to antibiotics. This new bug is a drug-resistant form of gonorrhea. However, before everyone starts imagining some worst-case scenario out of "Contagion," doctors suggest taking a breath, because it isn't necessarily true, according to NBC.
"The sky is not falling - yet," Dr. Kimberly Workowski, a professor of infectious disease at Emory University in Atlanta, said.
The story, which has been reported as fact by many established media outlets, including the Associated Press, is that a rare strain of gonorrhea known as HO41 has been detected in Hawai'i. This finding would cause many disease-related alarms to go off, as it would be the first sign of a strain that is resistant to ceftriaxone to be found domestically. Ceftriaxone is an injectable antibiotic that is the last-resort treatment for gonorrhea.
However, it turns out that the cases in Hawai'i, which were discovered in May 2011, were actually a strain known as H11S8, which is resistant to a different antibiotic, azithromycin, according to state officials. They have been aware of the situation for a while, and while it does raise a red flag, it has recently raised the wrong red flag and does not present any immediate danger.
The HO41 strain hasn't been detected anywhere in the world since 2009, when it was discovered in Japan, when a Japanese sex worker fell victim to the disease, according to Dr. Robert Kirkcaldy, a medical epidemiologist with the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
There have been a few other cases found to be resistant to ceftriaxone in other countries, but according to Kirkcaldy, they're different isolates.
The false reports have put public health officials in a unique position, where they are refuting an erroneous report, while also reminding the public that untreatable gonorrhea is a real threat in the U.S.
"We think that that could be just a matter of a year or two," William Smith, the executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors (NCSD), said. There were nearly 322,000 cases of gonorrhea reported in the U.S. in 2011, making it the second most commonly reported infection that requires notification in the nation. Because sufferers often show no sign of illness, the actual number is likely to be even higher, with the CDC estimating it to be closer to 700,000.
The problem is occurring because as the bug mutates, it is beginning to outsmart some of the usual antibiotics used to treat it. Last year, the CDC ceased recommending cefixime as a treatment after observation shows it was verging on resistance, with doxycycline and azithromycin remaining as viable treatment options.
"The point was to actually preserve the last remaining drug we know is effective," Workowski said.
The NCSD, led by Smith, is requesting $54 million from Congress for emergency appropriations to improve the U.S. health infrastructure that monitors, diagnoses and treats gonorrhea.
"Untreated gonorrhea is a disaster for public health and HIV prevention," Smith said.
On the bright side, at least there isn't a sex superbug, and gonorrhea can be prevented by practicing safe sex with a single partner, getting tested for STDs to ensure neither you nor your partner are infected, as well as diligent condom use, according to Kirkcaldy.