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A dangerous strain of gonorrhea should have South Carolinians worried


Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted disease caused by a bacterium. People get gonorrhea by having sex with someone who has the disease. Gonorrhea can also be spread from an untreated mother to her baby during childbirth.

The World Health Organization is reporting a strain of gonorrhea that is impossible to treat. With high rates of the sexually transmitted disease, residents of the Palmetto State should be particularly aware.

WHO said July 7 at least three people have a gonorrhea bug that is untreatable, and they could be spreading the infection to others through sex, Reuters reported. The agency did not specify where those cases have been identified.

WHO experts warned it was "only a matter of time" before the antibiotics commonly used to treat gonorrhea would be useless, according to Reuters.

Health experts in South Carolina warned the public to be vigilant. The disease is persistent here: South Carolina is the state with the fourth-highest rate of gonorrhea cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Kenneth Perry, an emergency physician with Trident Health, said he sees STDs at least once or twice in a shift. The first line of treatment used for gonorrhea is not effective 80 to 90 percent of the time, Perry said.

"It’s just not working now."

Doctors can move to other lines of treatment, Perry said, but they need to have the patient in front of them. In cases where gonorrhea appears in the emergency room, it often goes uncured, he said.

The rate of gonorrhea in South Carolina has been persistently high. In 2015, the last year for which data is available, the CDC counted 8,206 cases of the infection. CDC data shows the state's rate has remained steady during the last five years. If left untreated, gonorrhea can eventually cause infertility.

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Perry said the state's struggle with gonorrhea could be attributed mostly to a lack of condom use. He said adults should be tested for HIV once every six months. He said people should see a doctor if they have had unprotected sex and have symptoms of a urinary tract infection or discharge.

Perry said he rarely sees patients with gonorrhea where it's their first encounter with the disease. Gonorrhea and chlamydia occur together in many cases, he said. It's an indicator of a need for more public education when it comes to sexual health, he said.

Lucy Ingram, a public health researcher with the University of South Carolina, said there are many cases of gonorrhea where symptoms don't show themselves. People will make the mistake of thinking condoms aren't necessary because the other person "looks" clean, she said.

Ingram said there is a funding challenge for STD treatment, too. The WHO reported that developing new antibiotics is often not attractive to pharmaceutical companies. Part of the problem lies in the fact that the course of treatment is short.

But as resistance to antibiotics builds, new drugs must be found.

"We need to be able to fund more treatment options, and faster," Ingram said.

Still, the problem remains preventing the disease before it strikes. Ingram and Perry agreed the best way to do that is to find a primary care doctor — though the low availability of doctors is a problem that persists, too.

"Try to get in with a primary care doc who you trust," Perry said.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.

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