This Little-Known STI Could Be The Next Superbug

This Little-Known STI Could Be The Next Superbug

A new public health warning has been issues in Britain after statistics revealed cases of the sexually transmitted infection Mycoplasma Genitalium (MG) is on the rise – and has started showing resistance to antibiotics. Here’s what you need to know about the little-known STI that experts are calling ‘the silent epidemic’…

What is Mycoplasma Genitalium?

According to the NHS, MG is the smallest known bacterium that can replicate itself. It typically invades the cells lining the genital and urinary tracts, but has also been found in the rectum and even the lungs. Humans can be infected with the bacteria for years.

MG was first identified in the UK back in the early 1980s, and currently affects around 1-2% of the population – with the number of women infected slightly higher than men. It’s primarily spread through genital-to-genital contact or genital-to-rectal contact: basically, unprotected sex. The rate of infection after contact sits fairly high – in an Australian study into MG, 48% of women who’d had sexual contact with someone with MG found themselves also infected. Among heterosexual men the rate was 31%, and 41% for gay men.

The STI is more common in people of non-white ethnicity; smokers; those who have a large number of sexual partners; young people of both sexes; and older age groups of men. There are some fears that MG can cause infertility, but current research is not robust enough to make that link with any certainty.

How can you spot it?

Unfortunately, in most cases, there are no symptoms. Similarly to chlamydia, the lack of symptoms therefore makes the infection hard to spot. Occasionally, men will find their urethra inflamed, making it painful to urinate, and women may experience inflammation of the womb and fallopian tubes.

Tests to find the infection have recently been developed and can detect it in some cases, but many can still be missed – or mistaken for other STIs (MG is often found at the same time as chlamydia). If left unattended, it can turn into pelvic inflammatory disease, which, if untreated, can cause infertility.

How do you treat it?

The British Association of Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) is encouraging testing for anyone with the kind of inflammation that has been linked to MG. A set of guidelines released by the group to help combat infection recommends only those who show symptoms should be tested for now.

The usual treatment for MG is a course of antibiotics, but there are fears MG is beginning to build up a resistance – like gonorrhoea – and has been shown to combat at least one type of antibiotic known as macrolides (the macrolide resistance currently sits at around 40%).

It’s this information that sparked the recent panic surround the infection, with MG being compared to the superbug, super-gonorrhea. “These new guidelines have been developed because we can't afford to continue with the approach we have followed for the past 15 years,” said Paddy Horner, who helped write the BASHH guidelines. “This will undoubtedly lead to a public health emergency with the emergence of MG as a superbug.”

Can you prevent MG?

The advice from experts is fairly simple: avoid unprotected sex. Dr Helen Fifer, Consultant Microbiologist at Public Health England, advises: “Everyone can protect themselves from STIs by consistently and correctly using condoms with new and casual partners. If you have symptoms of an STI, we recommend you get tested at your local sexual health clinic.”

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