What you need to know:
- In 2020, there were 82 million new gonorrhoea cases among people aged between 15 to 49, according to the World Health Organization.
- Untreated gonorrhoea can lead to infertility and chronic pain in women.
Receiving a meningitis vaccine appears to protect young people against gonorrhoea, too.
This discovery could help prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant "super-gonorrhoea."
Two studies have found that young people who received a vaccine for meningitis have a lower infection rate with gonorrhoea, which is caused by a related bacterium.
Gonorrhoea is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoea. Not everyone with gonorrhoea displays symptoms, and diagnosed cases can be treated with antibiotics. However, in recent years, gonorrhoea "superbugs" have been detected, which are resistant to traditional drug therapies.
In 2020, there were 82 million new gonorrhoea cases among people aged between 15 to 49, according to the World Health Organization.
Untreated gonorrhoea can lead to infertility and chronic pain in women. It can also increase a person's chances of contracting HIV fivefold, and if a pregnant woman passes an infection on to her baby during childbirth, the baby can go blind.
In rare cases, gonorrhoea can spread to the bloodstream, causing a potentially deadly condition characterised by fever, joint pain, and pus-filled skin rashes.
Antibiotics have long been the standard treatment for gonorrhoea, but the bacteria that causes the disease has gotten increasingly better at resisting them.
The STI is proving increasingly hard to treat because the bacteria are becoming more resistant to standard antibiotics. Even after successful treatment, people may get repeated reinfections. Some "super-gonorrhoea" strains are resistant to nearly all possible antibiotics.
Over the years, researchers have been trying to create a gonorrhoea vaccine but none has been made through the development process.
However, there are vaccines for meningitis, and the bacteria that causes the infection is similar to the one that causes gonorrhoea.
Meningitis is a potentially deadly infection that causes swelling in the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
The two separate studies found that young people who received the meningitis vaccine, called 4CMenB, were somewhat protected against gonorrhoea.
The meningitis vaccine was designed to target a bacterium called Neisseria meningitidis, which is a cause of brain infections and is closely related to the gonorrhoea-causing Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Some of the antibodies generated by the meningitis vaccine bind to the gonorrhoea bacteria.
Two doses of the 4CMenB vaccine were found to provide 40 per cent protection against gonorrhoea infection among 16 to 23-year-olds in a study based on health records of New York City residents. Researchers were led by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
“Our findings suggest that meningitis vaccines that are even only moderately effective at protecting against gonorrhoea could have a major impact on prevention and control of the disease," said Dr Winston Abara, who led the CDC study.
"Clinical trials focused on the use of 4CMenB against gonorrhoea are needed to better understand its protective effects and could also offer important insights towards the development of a vaccine specifically for gonorrhoea."
A second observational study from South Australia used data from the most extensive 4CMenB vaccination programme globally, with participants' ages ranging from infant to young adults. This research indicated that two doses of the 4CMenB vaccine gave adolescents and young adults 33 per cent protection against gonorrhoea.
"Even though the effectiveness is moderate rather than high, it still would see a really impactful reduction in gonorrhoea," said Helen Marshall at Women's and Children's Hospital in Adelaide, Australia.