Saturday, 31 December 2016

Common Sex Diseases Are More Deadlier Than Flu

Hugh Pennington

Scotland’s foremost microbiologist says he is more worried about the spread of gonorrhoea than flu.

Professor Hugh Pennington was reacting to comments by billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, who says he is crossing his fingers a deadly flu epidemic does not strike in the next 10 years because the world is “a bit vulnerable right now”.

Mr Gates, whose foundation invests in improving global healthcare, said the Ebola and Zika crises showed the systems for responding to emergencies are still not strong enough.

But Mr Pennington, past president of the Society For General Microbiology, said flu outbreaks could be treated relatively quickly while strains of sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhoea were virtually untreatable.

Gonorrhoea is most common among the 20-24 age group, with a rate of 269.5 per 100,000 population.

There were 2,346 diagnoses of gonorrhoea reported to Health Protection Scotland in 2015, a 28 per cent increase on the previous year and the highest annual total recorded over the past 10 years.

The majority of gonorrhoea diagnoses north of the Border were among males – 81 per cent of all diagnoses.

An incurable form of gonorrhoea – a disease, once easily killed with a shot of penicillin – is increasingly becoming drug-resistant in the US.

Mr Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, said: “I think Bill Gates is right to flag up the threat of flu, in the sense we do not know what is going to happen. For example, the Ebola outbreak was much larger than predicted.

“But my bigger concern is that some bugs, such as gonorrhoea, and to some extent TB, have strains that are untreatable. I’m more worried about them than flu. We have learned lessons from flu outbreaks and can produce a vaccine very quickly. But in the case of gonorrhoea we cannot find an answer to certain strains.

“The trouble is, you cannot control people’s social behaviour, especially sexual behaviour, as much as you may try.

“Shigella (a bacteria related to salmonella) is also becoming resistant to treatment. It is very worrying.

“As for flu, China is a cause for concern – not least because it has over a quarter of the world’s population – but less so. The country is becoming more urbanised and better at dealing with the virus.”

Mr Pennington was chairman of the public inquiry into the 2005 outbreak of E.coli O157 in South Wales and also led the investigation into the 1996 outbreak in Wishaw, Lanarkshire, in which 21 people died and about 200 were infected.

He is also a former member of the World Food Programme Technical Advisory Group.

Gonorrhoea has a long history of evading medicine’s attempts to cure it. In the 1930s, sulfa-based drugs worked, but soon lost potency as the bacteria adapted.

Penicillin was introduced in the 1940s, but eventually doctors had to use more and more to kill the bug, and resistance increased. Strains of the bacteria also morphed to make antibiotics less effective.



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