Collision Course

November 26, 2007

A strange convergence of news stories this past week has come and gone like ships passing in the night, causing no ripples, leaving no wake. On the surface, all is calm. Down deep, strong currents pull toward inevitable disaster.

More than one million cases of Chlamydia were reported in the United States last year. Federal health officials state this is the greatest number ever of reported cases for a sexually transmitted disease (STD).

What would generally generate alarm, though, is being soft-pedaled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). We are told this "may not be all bad news." We are not victims of a disease, the CDC says, but instead are victims of reporting of the disease.

Based on their analysis, we have the CDC to thank for these new higher levels of Chlamydia infection. For more than 10 years, they have recommended annual screening for sexually active women, focusing on teens and young adults ages 15 to 25.

As good as our testing might be, Dr. John M. Douglas Jr. at the CDC admits to Associated Press that it leaves something to be desired. "As many as 2.8 million new cases may actually be occurring each year," Dr. Douglas states, a fact that appears almost as a throwaway footnote buried in the story.

Buried under this throwaway footnote is another story. Rates of the STD gonorrhea are also soaring, with two consecutive years of increases. But the biggest part of the story has yet to appear in bold headlines.

In 2006, a surveillance project in 28 cities found that 14 percent of the reported gonorrhea cases were resistant to ciprofloxacin and other antibiotics used to treat it. This rate is up from the 9 percent in 2005, which was itself also up from the 7 percent in 2004. Up, up, up...and the CDC responds in April...advising doctors "to stop using those drugs against gonorrhea."

The rise of a superbug for gonorrhea doesn't appear to fluster the CDC's own Dr. Douglas, though. After all, "it doesn't look like the superbugs are the reason for gonorrhea's escalating numbers overall." What is? Well, Dr. Douglas and his colleagues are "not sure what is driving the increase."

Meanwhile, across the country in the Reno Gazette-Journal, a new study on Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, shows that this superbug and the deaths it causes may exceed deaths caused by AIDS. Dr. Steven Althoff managed to diagnose and treat 4-year-old Jordan Roberts just in time. She lived. But Dr. Althoff has seen a five-fold increase of MRSA cases in the last year.

And out of Atlanta, U.S. health officials told AP that "a mutated version of a common cold virus has caused 10 deaths in the last 18 months." Again, "CDC officials don't consider the mutation to be a cause for alarm for most people." It's just as well. Alarm, in this case, will do no good since "there are no good antiviral medications for adenoviruses."

Three news stories this week. Superbugs. Bacterium and viruses resistant to drugs. But we are told not to worry.

What are we to do? Get tested? Be informed? Know we have the disease? And then what? Well, at least, we know what we are not to do. Don't worry.

Three news stories this week. Superbugs. The CDC twists in the wind, letting ships run a collision course in the night, turning off the early warning system, and massaging us back to sleep.

You may have a deadly cold, a MRSA infection or a gonorrhea infection. But the germs are not the culprits. We are victims of knowledge, of knowing what ails us. Now go back to sleep. There's nothing to worry about.

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Copyright ©2007 Jane Jimenez