Sex Superbug Not 'Worse than AIDS,' Experts Say

artist rendering of bacteria
Bacteria (Image credit: Dreamstime)

Antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is a serious public health issue, but comparing the illness to AIDS, as a recent article did, is misleading, experts say.

A recent CNBC article with the headline "Sex Superbug Could Be 'Worse Than AIDS'" quoted Alan Christianson, a naturopathic doctor, as saying that an antibiotic-resistant strain of the sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea "might be a lot worse than AIDS in the short run because the bacteria is more aggressive and will affect more people quickly."

However, 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." ButHirsch 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.

Gonorrhea is becoming increasingly resistant to the antibiotics doctors have to treat it. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that there is just one drug left that can be used as a first-line treatment for the disease. The drug, ceftriaxone (an antibiotic delivered by injection) is recommended to be used along with other antibiotics, such as such as azithromycin or doxycycline, for seven days.

So far, the United States has not seen any cases of gonorrhea that were completely resistant to antibiotics, the CDC said.

In 2011, there were more than 300,000 cases of gonorrhea reported to the CDC. Gonorrhea is caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhea and is spread through sexual activity. People with gonorrhea often show no symptoms (men are more likely to have symptoms than women). In some cases, the disease can cause serious complications, including infertility and chronic pelvic pain in women, and in men, epididymitis, a painful inflammation of the ducts attached to the testicles if left untreated, according to the CDC.

If gonorrhea becomes resistant to all antibiotics, "then we're going to be in the same situations that were we in the 1800s," Hirsch said.

The CDC says urgent action is needed to stop the spread of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, including the identification and study of new antibiotics treatments.

Proper use of condoms can reduce the risk of getting gonorrhea. The best way to prevent the disease is not to have sex, or to be in a monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested for the disease and is known not to be infected, the CDC says.

Pass it on: Antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is a serious problem, but experts disagree with the comparison of the illness to AIDS.

This story was provided by MyHealthNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience. Follow Rachael Rettner @RachaelRettner. Follow MyHealthNewsDaily @MyHealth_MHND, Facebook & Google+. Originally published on MyHealthNewsDaily.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.