Health Care

KC area sees spike in gonorrhea cases amid reports the disease is evolving

As gonorrhea rates spike in KC-area counties, officials urge couple practice safe sex.
As gonorrhea rates spike in KC-area counties, officials urge couple practice safe sex. AP

Reported cases of gonorrhea spiked in Kansas City-area counties in 2017 amid reports that the disease has become more difficult to treat.

In Jackson County, there were 2,906 cases reported in 2017, more than any year since at least 2000. There were 2,480 cases reported in 2016, according to data reported to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

In Johnson County, there was a nearly 100 percent increase in reported cases in 2017 than the average of the four preceding years. Almost 500 cases were reported in 2017, with just 243 on average in 2013–2016.

Kristin Metcalf-Wilson, the assistant vice president of health services and lead clinician at Planned Parenthood of the Great Plains, said the organization’s sexually transmitted diseases screenings have been steadily turning up more positives.

“We have seen an increase typically in chlamydia and gonorrhea, but gonorrhea has been on the rise more than usual,” Metcalf-Wilson said.

One factor may be the evolving disease itself, which is becoming more resistant to antibiotics. Gonorrhea has become much harder, and in some cases impossible, to treat, the World Health Organization said last summer.

“To address the pressing need for new treatments for gonorrhea, we urgently need to seize the opportunities we have with existing drugs and candidates in the pipeline. In the short term, we aim to accelerate the development and introduction of at least one of these pipeline drugs, and will evaluate the possible development of combination treatments for public health use,” said Manica Balasegaram, director of the Global Antibiotic Research and Development Partnership.

“Any new treatment developed should be accessible to everyone who needs it, while ensuring it’s used appropriately, so that drug resistance is slowed as much as possible.”

Metcalf-Wilson said her organization is trying to ensure that its patients are getting treated effectively and knocking out the infection.

“We always encourage people who have been positive before to come back in three or four months for a re-screening,” Metcalf-Wilson said.

Free screening is available for those who qualify based on income at Planned Parenthood and safety-net clinics like Kansas City Care Clinic and Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center locations.

Officials in Douglas County were alarmed to learn there were nearly as many cases in the first half of 2017 as there were in all of 2016, the Lawrence Journal-World reported.

Modest increases in population in the three counties may be partly to blame for the spike in reported cases.

Metcalf-Wilson also said increased screening may be turning up more cases that in past years would have gone unreported. Planned Parenthood moved to an “opt-out” policy for sexually transmitted disease screening for its patients about four years ago.

“If you’re there to see them, they assume they’re gonna do STD tests,” Metcalf-Wilson said. “It’s really up to patients to tell us they don’t want it.”

Metcalf-Wilson said regular screenings and use of condoms are the best way for people who are sexually active to avoid getting and spreading gonorrhea.

Nancy Tausz, the health services division director for the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, recommended seeking treatment immediately after noticing symptoms and notifying previous partners if infected.

Symptoms include burning while urinating, soreness, bleeding or painful bowel movements, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In men, symptoms also include swollen or painful testicles and a white, yellow or green discharge.

In women, symptoms also include increased vaginal discharge and bleeding between periods.

The infection can be passed to babies during delivery.

“I think people need to be aware and watch for symptoms and use protection,” Tausz said.

Max Londberg: 816-234-4378, @MaxLondberg