The Media’s Tales Of A Deadly New “Sex Superbug” Are Greatly Exaggerated


The Internet exploded today with stories about an incredibly dangerous “sex superbug” at our doorstep. Some of the more provocative headlines included “Sex superbug could be ‘worse than AIDS’” (CNBC) and “New sex superbug could be global killer, doctors warn” (The Sun). All of these stories went on to talk about a very aggressive strain of gonorrhea known as HO41 that is resistant to all known antibiotics (and, no, I don’t know whether scientists were trying to be funny when they named this STI “ho-41”). Moreover, the stories talked about how the infection is spread quickly and easily and can lead to death “in a matter of days.” Time for a global panic, right? Hold your horses, because in the rush to report this news quickly, a number of journalists failed to check their facts.

First, as far as I can tell, only one known case of HO41 has been documented and it occurred among a female sex worker in Japan two years ago [1]. While this case is incredibly worrisome and should be a wake-up call to biomedical researchers and pharmaceutical companies to start working on new antibiotics before it's too late, we shouldn’t start trumpeting that HO41 is “worse than AIDS” on the basis of a single case study. If the infection does begin spreading, it could be devastating—I don’t dispute that. But when we report the news, journalists have a duty to make it clear what we do and do not know, and we need to be very careful about making such sweeping claims on the basis of a single case.

Second, the claims that HO41 can lead to death “in a matter of days” simply are not substantiated. For one thing, there haven’t been any deaths linked to this strain of gonorrhea yet. And for another, the source of all of the “deadly” claims is a single individual: Alan Christianson, who is described in the media articles as “a doctor of naturopathic medicine.” A quick Google search reveals that Christianson specializes in providing “natural” remedies for people suffering from thyroid disorders. He’s not a medical doctor or sexual health researcher, so how he became the media’s authority on HO41 remains to be seen. I say this not to question Christianson’s reputation, but rather to ask this: why of all possible people they could have interviewed for this story did they not bother consulting an infectious diseases expert? When you're trying to get an expert opinion, you don't just pick a name out of a hat.

In short, these media headlines should indeed create a panic—but we should be panicking that far too many journalists don’t know how to do their jobs. As a journalist, the one and only thing you need to get right in your reporting are the facts—without them, you have no credibility and the “news” you are reporting is worthless.

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[1] Ohnishi, M., Golparian, D., Shimuta, K., Saika, T., Hoshina, S., Iwasaku, K., ... & Unemo, M. (2011). Is Neisseria gonorrhoeae initiating a future era of untreatable gonorrhea?: Detailed characterization of the first strain with high-level resistance to ceftriaxone. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, 55, 3538-3545.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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