Gonorrhea is a common sexually transmitted disease (STD) and the mostcommon bacterial infection in adults. In the United States, approximately 1 million cases are reported each year, most occurring in people under age 30. In its early stages, the disease may cause no symptoms and therefore can be spread by unsuspecting victims. In females, gonorrhea often remains asymptomatic but can lead to vaginal itching, discharge, or uterine bleeding and other serious complications. An infected woman who gives birth can transmit the disease to her infant, most often resulting in childhood blindness. As a precaution, silver nitrate is administered to the eyes of newborns to prevent this condition. In males, gonorrhea causes infection of the urethra and painful urination. Though not deadly, the disease if untreated can infect other genital organs or the throat. If the infection spreads throughout the blood stream, itcan cause an arthritis dermatitis syndrome.
Gonorrhea was described in early writings from Egypt, China, and Japan. Warnings against "unclean discharge from the body" appear in the Bible. A diagnostic description of the disease was written in the Middle Ages. In the late fifteenth century, a syphilis epidemic raged throughout Europe, though at that time syphilis was often confused with gonorrhea, and some believed that gonorrhea was the first stage of syphilis. The gram-negative bacteria that causes gonorrhea was discovered in 1879 by Albert Neisser (1855-1916), a German physician who went on to identify the bacterial cause for leprosy. German immunologist Paul Ehrlich named the bacterium gonococcus. Since then, five types of the gonococcus organism have been identified.
A test for the presence of gonococcus bacterium serves as the diagnostic tool. The first effective treatment for gonorrhea were the sulfonamides which became available in 1937. During World War II, penicillin became widely available for the treatment of gonorrhea and other bacterial disease. However, whilepenicillin and related antibiotics are effective in about 90 percent of cases, some strains of the gonococcus are becoming resistant to these standard treatments.
While reported cases of gonorrhea in the United States have decreased annually since 1987, the disease and its complications still cost an estimated $1.1million a year. Found mostly in high-density urban areas, the highest incidence is among people 24 years of age and under who have multiple sex partners and do not use condoms or other safe-sex measures. Interestingly, whilethe incidence of AIDS has gone down in the homosexual male population, epidemiologists have noted an increase in gonorrhea among homosexual men. The best way to prevent gonorrhea is to practice sexual abstinence or through the use of male condoms during sexual activity. Due to the dramatic rise of antibiotic-resistant strains of the disease, scientists are working on new approaches for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of gonorrhea.