What Does Antibiotic Resistance Mean For Sexual Health?
Antibiotic resistance is not a warning of a far-flung future apocalyptic doom, it's happening right now. And yes, we should be worried. The golden era of antibiotics is ending and, as of yet, there's no real alternative to replace it.
What are antibiotics?
Antibiotics destroy bacteria, or prevent them growing so the immune system can finish them off.
Before Alexander Fleming discovered the first antibiotic in 1928 women routinely died in childbirth, surgery was risky because of infections, and STI's weren't treatable. Today, modern cancer treatments and organ transplants are only so successful because antibiotics make it safer. It was a difficult time without antibiotics, and we really don't want to go back to it.
Isn't antibiotic resistance just a scare story to cut costs?
No. That would be better than the reality. Just as Darwin explained, we evolve, and so do bacteria.
Scientists have identified some bacteria that can now fight off antibiotics. When they do this, they breed and create superbugs that we can't destroy. Professor Timothy Walsh of Cardiff University thinks antibiotic resistance is a case of 'when, not if' and Chinese researchers have found E.coli bacteria that has become resistant to the antibiotic colistin. This is particularly bad because colistin is a last resort treatment used for infections that other antibiotics have failed to treat.
Antibiotic resistance will mean the likely re-emergence of diseases we hardly see in the UK any more, such as tuberculosis, and also the inability to treat or cure STIs. This is A Bad Thing. Google some images of syphilis in the early 1900s and you'll see what I mean - first discomfort, then disfigurement, then infertility and potentially death.
What does that mean for us?
It means that when we do really need antibiotics, they may not work. This will dramatically reduce our quality of life.
And specifically for our sex lives?
We rely on antibiotics to treat our STIs and they do a good job. However, a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association indicated that STI bacteria is showing more resistance to antibiotic therapy, and a Public Health England study indicated that the bacterium that causes gonorrhoea is becoming resistant to the antibiotic ciprofloxin.
Gonorrhoea is passed through oral, vaginal and anal sex. The symptoms are discharge, bleeding, pain during sex or when urinating, tiredness and a fluey feeling. Men can add testicle pain to the list. Oral gonorrhoea symptoms are a sore throat, swollen glands and ulcers. See a doctor straight away if you suspect you have gonorrhoea.
How can we protect ourselves?
The routine use of antibiotics to enhance animal growth in the meat trade is banned in Europe, although it continues in China, and a lot of effort and money is being spent researching alternatives to antibiotics before bacteria become completely immune to them. Naturally sourced ingredients from insects and tiny micro-robots are under the microscope as potential antibiotic replacements.
We can help ourselves by washing our hands frequently with plain (not antibacterial) soap and water, listening to our partner doctorwhen they say we don't need antibiotics, and finishing all our prescriptions.
For STIs, the answer is abstinence. I'm joking, although that would work... using condoms, judicial choice of sexual partners and not having stranger sex after ten Jaegerbombs will reduce your chances of picking up an STI.
In the future we may not be able to rely on good old penicillin and the like to rid us of STIs, so it's more important than ever to protect yourself. Get some condoms and start right now.