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CDC changes guidelines for treating gonorrhea in gay men

By |2013-04-05T09:00:00-04:00April 5th, 2013|Uncategorized|

By Bob Roehr

The spread of drug-resistant gonorrhea has led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to change its guidelines for treating that infection in gay men, but not in heterosexuals. The changes were announced at an April 29 telephone news conference and were published that same day in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).
Drugs in the fluoroquinolone family, such as Cipro, currently are the standard treatment. But misuse has led to the emergence of drug-resistant strains of gonorrhea. Now the CDC is recommending use of the injectable antibiotics ceftriaxone and cefixime to treat gay men. A pill form of the latter should be available shortly.
Gonorrhea is the second most commonly reported infectious disease in the US. More than 350,000 cases were reported last year, with much of the data coming from public health clinics, and experts believe the total number of infections is at least 700,000.
The CDC has tracked the development of drug-resistant gonorrhea as it appeared in Asia and then spread eastward. It recommended switching from fluoroquinolones to other drugs for all cases of gonorrhea in Hawaii in 2000, and expanded that to California in 2002.
Now it is recommending that all men who have sex with men (MSM) be treated with ceftriaxone and cefixime, regardless of where they live in the US. Drug resistance appears to be low enough among heterosexuals that the CDC is recommending no changes in treatment guidelines for that population at this time.
Citing data from its surveillance in 30 cities, CDC’s director of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) John Douglas said the proportion of gonorrhea cases resistant to fluoroquinolones more than doubled, from 0.4% in 2002 to 0.9% in 2003.
The proportion of resistant gonorrhea was twelve times higher among MSM than among heterosexual men in 2003, Douglas said. The key messages for doctors are to ask men who they are having sex with, and remember that travel histories matter. They also should be alert to the possibility of treatment failure as signaling the presence of drug-resistant gonorrhea.
Kenneth Mayer, a physician with Fenway Community Health that serves the LGBT population in Boston, said last year 11% of the gonorrhea in gay men in the state was drug-resistant. It was nearly six times higher among MSM than among heterosexual men.
Mayer saw this as part of an overall trend of increasing cases of gonorrhea, not just the resistant variety. Gay men are having more unsafe sex and that is resulting in more STDs. Fenway reported treating about 50 cases of the clap in 1988 and about 150 cases last year. Syphilis ballooned from a low of 3 cases in 1998 to 51 cases in 2003.
Dr. Douglas’ best hunch explanation of why drug-resistant gonorrhea is higher in gay men is that they tend to travel more and have sex in parts of the world where drug resistance first emerged. They returned with a drug-resistant souvenir of that journey.
He pointed out that the drip and pain on urination of urethral gonorrhea draws attention and treatment, but anal-rectal infection is less likely to become symptomatic and be detected, and thus treated. That offers a longer carriage of infection and a longer opportunity to transmit it to other partners.
Dr. Mayer added there may be a cohort effect; once resistant gonorrhea is introduced into the gay community, people tend to have partners within that subset of individuals and that allows for amplification of the infection.
Despite the CDC guidelines, many physicians out in the community continue to use quinolones because they are cheap and easy to administer, Mayer said.
Douglas said that switching from a pill to an injectable therapy creates a barrier to administering treatment because some physicians do not stock the drug. Some patients also resist injections.
Mayer reminded people that CDC guidelines call for sexually active MSM to be screened for STDs at least twice a year. More adherence to that on the part of providers might help curtail the epidemic.

About the Author:

BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.