A rare form of gonorrhea makes first appearance in Michigan in 30 years

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Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan health officials are scrambling to contain a rare form of gonorrhea that hasn’t appeared in the state in 30 years.

So far this year there are four confirmed cases in Kalamazoo County, a fifth one in St. Joseph County and a sixth unconfirmed case in Calhoun County, health authorities said.

The disease is called disseminated gonococcal infection or DGI and the Michigan cases are the only known cases in the nation at this time, said Becky Harrison, public health nurse supervisor at Kalamazoo County Health and Community Services.  

Health officials elsewhere are worried.

“We are following this outbreak of DGI with concern and interest,” said Dr. Joshua Meyerson, medical director at the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, which encompasses Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties. “At this time we have not seen any cases that would indicate the presence of DGI in our area.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control is working closely with health officials in Kalamazoo County to investigate Michigan’s outbreak. The exact cause remains unclear and it is uncertain if the disease is spreading or contained in the southernmost part of the state.  

DGI develops after the onset of a typical case of gonorrhea that is not diagnosed or is otherwise untreated, said Lynn Sutfin, the public information officer with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

A large reason for undiagnosed gonorrhea is that it often exhibits no symptoms, especially in females, who may confuse mild symptoms of gonorrhea with a bladder infection. 

DGI is different from typical gonorrhea. The bacteria, transmitted by sexual contact, causes symptoms in other areas of the body besides the reproductive organs. Symptoms include malaise, fever, chills, joint pain and swelling, especially in the wrists and feet, Sutfin said.    

 A nationwide trend of rising sexually transmitted diseases is also seen locally and statewide. In Kalamazoo County between 2017 and 2018, there was a 20% increase in gonorrhea cases, Harrison said.

 In 2017, Michigan had 15,742 reported cases of gonorrhea. In 2018, that number jumped 7.5% to 16,922. 

Technology could be one culprit. The prevalence of dating apps means it is easy to have nearly anonymous relations with someone, health officials said.

That makes it difficult later to inform partners that they should get checked for STDs. The lack of ability to communicate can further promote the spread of STDs, said Penny Born, public nurse supervisor of Kalamazoo County Health and Community Services.

The Northwest Michigan Health Department has told local health care providers and hospitals to be on the alert, Meyerson said. All cases of gonorrhea are followed up appropriately to ensure detection of DGI if present.

DGI is treated with the same antibiotics as gonorrhea, just for a longer period of time. No exact duration of treatment has been established.

None of the reported cases of DGI in Michigan has been resistant to antibiotic treatment, Harrison said.

To prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, people should get regular screenings, use condoms, be familiar with their sexual partners and limit their number, Sutfin said.

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