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Few words are scarier than "sexually transmitted infection"—especially when they're used in the same sentence with "drug-resistant superbug." Recently, the thought of STI superbugs has gotten more worrisome as infections like gonorrhea and syphilis are getting harder and harder to treat with antibiotics. (For more alarming, but need-to-know info, check out why gonorrhea might soon be untreatable and why syphilis might be the next scary STI superbug.)
Now, doctors are warning against a new STI called mycoplasma genitalium (MG) that could turn into an antibiotic-resistant superbug. Here's everything you need to know.
MG is an under-the-radar sexually transmitted infection that's about twice as common in women, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. "In studies from the United States, the prevalence of M. genitalium is approximately 1 percent among young adults—globally, it's up to 6 percent among women," says Adeeti Gupta, M.D., a board-certified gynecologist and founder of Walk In GYN Care in New York. But as she says she's seen in her own practice, cases of MG are on the rise. "In our practice alone, we are diagnosing at least four to five myocoplasma genitalum cases every month."
Like other STIs, MG is transmitted through direct sexual contact, says Dr. Gupta. "The sad part is there may not be any symptoms," she says. In fact, MG is often totally asymptomatic in women (just like chlamydia and gonorrhea), which makes it much harder to catch, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That doesn't mean it's no biggie—if it's not treated, MG can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease and ultimately infertility. (Related: My Infertility Was the Eating Disorder Wakeup-Call I Needed.)
MG has experts worried for two reasons. Number one, it's getting harder to treat making doctors worried that just like gonorrhea and syphilis, it could turn into a drug-resistant superbug. "MG used to be able to be treated by a group of antibiotics including Azithromycin," explains Dr. Gupta. But studies show the infection has developed a resistance to the drug. The CDC flagged the bacterial infection as an emerging issue back in 2015 when a trial found that the cure rate of Azithromycin had dropped to only 40 percent—less than half of what the cure rate had been.
So, how the heck does bacteria mutate into a nightmare-inducing superbug in the first place? "All living material including bacteria and viruses undergo constant changes and adaptation to changing conditions—the genetic makeup mutates to adapt and survive," explains Dr. Gupta. Thus, a superbug is born. "With the spreading resistance, we will have to rely on penicillin-related drugs to treat MG," she says. "For people who are allergic to penicillin, we will not have a lot of options left."
In response to the worrying MG stats, the British Association of Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) just released new guidelines for testing for and treating the potential new superbug.
So how concerned should you be about STIs like MG becoming harder to treat? "Very concerned," says Dr. Gupta. As STIs become more resistant to drugs, docs are running out of options.
The number one thing you can and should be doing to stay safe, says Dr. Gupta, is using condoms—even if you use another form of birth control like the pill or IUD—yes, even for oral and anal sex. (Why not start now? Here's a handy guide to some of the best condoms available.)
But maybe even more important is asking your partner for a confirmed negative STI test, she says. "It may be awkward, but it's better to be safe," says Dr. Gupta. "Most partners will tell you that they have been tested and are clean, but a lot of them have not been tested for all STIs—ask specifically for gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, HIV, trichomonas, herpes, and MG test results." (And on the flipside, here's how to talk to your partner about your own STI status.)