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Overblown and Inaccurate Gonorrhea 'STD Superbug' Reports


Circulating reports claim that a new antibiotic-resistant strain of gonorrhea could be deadlier than AIDS and could kill in a matter of days.

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Brief Analysis

HO41, the strain of gonorrhea referenced in the reports, is real but it has not been detected since a case in Japan several years ago.  The strain has not spread to the United States via Hawaii as claimed and health experts have disputed suggestions that it may be deadlier than AIDS.  The reports exaggerate the risk posed by the strain and contain inaccurate information.  Reposting them is therefore counterproductive. Nevertheless, the threat of drug resistant gonorrhea remains a significant concern for health authorities in the US and elsewhere.


New STD superbug may be deadlier than AIDS; kills in a matter of days

There is a new sexually transmitted superbug that experts say may be more deadly that AIDS. According to a CNBC report, an antibiotic-resistant strain of gonorrhea is more aggressive than the HIV virus, which means the potential to infect the public will be greater.

STD Super Bug

Detailed Analysis

Since May 2013, various news reports about a supposed gonorrhea "superbug" have been circulating via social media and blog posts. The reports discuss a supposed STD superbug - HO41, a strain of gonorrhea  - that is resistant to antibiotics, and quote a medical "expert" as warning that the strain could be deadlier than AIDS and kill in a matter of days. Some of the reports originally claimed that the superbug has been found in Hawaii and California.

HO41 is a real strain of gonorrhea and it is indeed resistant to antibiotics.  However, the claims about HO41 in the circulating reports are misleading and inaccurate.

Firstly, HO41 has not made its way to the United States as claimed.  Initial media reports making that claim were wrong.  A May 6 2013 NBC News report noted:
Several media outlets, including The Associated Press, last week reported that a rare strain of gonorrhea known as HO41 had been detected in Hawaii. That would have raised alarms nationwide, signaling the first domestic sign of a strain that's been found to be resistant to ceftriaxone, an injectable antibiotic that is the last-resort treatment for the sexually transmitted infection.

But the Hawaii cases, first discovered in May 2011, were actually a different strain, H11S8, resistant to a different drug, the antibiotic azithromycin, state health officials confirmed. That’s been a known problem for a while, Workowski added. The AP later withdrew the inaccurate report.

In fact, HO41 has not been detected anywhere in the world since 2009, when a Japanese sex worker was found to have the strain. There have been a small number of other gonorrhea cases around the world that have been resistant to ceftriaxone, but they were not HO41 cases.

Secondly, the rather breathless claims in the reports that the strain is "deadlier than AIDS" and "could kill in days" has been disputed. Those claims reportedly originate from one Alan Christianson, "a doctor of naturopathic medicine". But other health experts have given a more measured response to the issue.  A May 2012 Live Science article noted:

…. some experts called the comparison hyperbolic.

"I disagree with the general comparison," said Dr. Bruce Hirsch, an attending physician in infectious diseases at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y.

"The rate of complications from gonorrhea in terms of systemic problems is so much lower than the rate of complications from untreated AIDS infection," Hirsch said.

The CNBC article says that this particular strain of gonorrhea "might put someone into septic shock and death in a matter of days." But Hirsch said that the rate of life-threatening complications, such as sepsis, from gonorrhea, is about 1 percent, while the rate of death from untreated AIDS is 98 percent.

 "At this point in time, AIDS is a fatal infection," while gonorrhea patients very rarely die from the condition, said Dr. Carlos del Rio, chair of the Global Health Department at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health. However, both experts stressed that antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea was a very serious problem. "There really is no reason to compare it to anything else," del Rio said.

The misleading reports prompted the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to publish the following statement:

Recent Press Coverage about Drug Resistant Gonorrhea
May 8, 2013

Several recent news stories reporting cases of the H041 strain of gonorrhea in the United States are inaccurate. The H041 strain referenced in many of these news articles refer to a case detected in Japan several years ago. The H041 strain has not been detected since then, and was never reported in the United States.

CDC is, however, concerned about the threat of drug resistant gonorrhea and continues to raise awareness on this important public health issue, but it is critical to remember that currently-recommended treatment regimens remain effective in the United States.

For information about gonorrhea and recommended treatment regimens, please see CDC’s fact sheet on the topic: Adobe PDF file.
Sharing these misleading and inaccurate reports is counterproductive. But, as the CDC report notes, antibiotic resistant gonorrhea is a threat of real concern to health authorities. Which makes it even more important that information published by media outlets regarding the issue is accurate and up-to-date.

Last updated: January 24, 2014
First published: January 24, 2014
By Brett M. Christensen
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