Is gonorrhea really worse than AIDS? Or are we addicted to superbug stories?

Experts argue that gonorrhea should not be compared to AIDS

Topics: Performance Improvement, Quality, Infection Control, Infectious Diseases

May 8, 2013

Recent media reports have suggested that a drug-resistant strain of gonorrhea could be "worse than AIDS," but experts argue that it is an inflammatory comparison that's symptomatic of a fixation on superbug stories.

Although no deaths have been reported from the "superbug" HO41 gonorrhea strain, Alan Christenson, a doctor of naturopathic medicine, recently predicted that HO41 "might be a lot worse than AIDS in the short run because the bacteria is more aggressive and will affect more people quickly."

Christenson told CNBC that the particular strain of gonorrhea could "put someone into septic shock and death in a matter of days."

Related: Gonorrhea superbug cases spike, as superbug fears grow

Echoing Christenson's concern, William Smith—executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, told CNBC, "The potential for disaster is great." He notes that, although the number of individuals infected with the HO41 strain remains low, "this strain is a very tricky bug and we don't have anything medically to fight it right now."

The HO41 strain was first discovered two years ago in Japan. According to CDC, there have been no reported cases outside Japan.

Experts: The AIDS, gonorrhea comparison doesn't hold up

Writing in the Daily Beast, infectious disease specialist Kent Sepkowitz contends that the "metaphors of war and crisis and sky-is-falling simply do not fit this particular struggle."

Instead, he argues Christenson's "inflammatory" AIDS remark is symptom of the "perverse addiction the press seems to have for stories about superbugs." According to CDC, superbugs—defined as bacterial disease resistant to all antibiotic treatment—kill about half of the people they infect, and they infect nearly one in 20 hospital patients overall.

Similarly, North Shore University Hospital infectious disease specialist Bruce Hirsch says the comparison between AIDS and the HO41 strain is not apt. "The rate of complications from gonorrhea in terms of systemic problems is so much lower than the rate of complications from untreated AIDS infection," he said He notes that the risk for life-threatening complications from gonorrhea is about 1%, compared with 98% from untreated AIDS (Koba, CNBC, 5/2; Sepkotwitz, Daily Beast, 5/7; Rettner, MyHealthNewsDaily/FOX News, 5/7).

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