STI update: Testing, treatment, and emerging threats

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A member of the Mycoplasmataceae family, M genitalium was originally identified as a pathogen in the early 1980s but has only recently emerged as an important cause of STI. Studies indicate that it is responsible for 10% to 20% of cases of nongonococcal urethritis and 10% to 30% of cases of cervicitis.31–33 Additionally, 2% to 22% of cases of pelvic inflammatory disease have evidence of M genitalium.34,35

However, data on M genitalium prevalence are suspect because the organism is hard to identify—lacking a cell wall, it is undetectable by Gram stain.36 Although it has been isolated in respiratory and synovial fluids, it has so far been recognized to be clinically important only in the urogenital tract. It can persist for years in infected patients by exploiting specialized cell-surface structures to invade cells.36 Once inside a cell, it triggers secretion of mycoplasmal toxins and destructive metabolites such as hydrogen peroxide, evading the host immune system as it does so.37

Testing guidelines for M genitalium

Current guidelines do not recommend routine screening for M genitalium, and no commercial test was available until recently.12 Although evidence suggests that M genitalium is independently associated with preterm birth and miscarriages,38 routine screening of pregnant women is not recommended.12

Testing for M genitalium should be considered in cases of persistent or recurrent nongonococcal urethritis in patients who test negative for gonorrhea and chlamydia or for whom treatment has failed.12 Many isolates exhibit genotypic resistance to macrolide antibiotics, which are often the first-line therapy for nongonococcal urethritis.39

Further study is needed to evaluate the potential impact of routine screening for M genitalium on the reproductive and sexual health of at-risk populations.

Diagnostic tests for M genitalium

Awareness of M genitalium as a cause of nongonococcal urethritis has been hampered by a dearth of diagnostic tests.40 The organism’s fastidious requirements and extremely slow growth preclude culture as a practical method of diagnosis.41 Serologic assays are dogged by cross-reactivity and poor sensitivity.42,43 Thus, molecular assays for detecting M genitalium and associated resistance markers are preferred for diagnosis.12

Several molecular tests are approved, available, and in use in Europe for diagnosing M genitalium infection,40 and in January 2019 the FDA approved a molecular test that can detect M genitalium in urine specimens and vaginal, endocervical, urethral, and penile meatal swabs. Although vaginal swabs are preferred for this assay because they have higher sensitivity (92% for provider-collected and 99% for patient-collected swabs), urine specimens are acceptable, with a sensitivity of 78%.44

At least 1 company is seeking FDA clearance for another molecular diagnostic assay for detecting M genitalium and markers of macrolide resistance in urine and genital swab specimens. Such assays may facilitate appropriate treatment.

Clinicians should stay abreast of diagnostic testing options, which are likely to become more readily available soon.

A high rate of macrolide resistance

Because M genitalium lacks a cell wall, antibiotics such as beta-lactams that target cell wall synthesis are ineffective.

Regimens for treating M genitalium are outlined in Table 2.12 Azithromycin is more effective than doxycycline. However, as many as 50% of strains were macrolide-resistant in a cohort of US female patients.45 Given the high incidence of treatment failure with azithromycin 1 g, it is thought that this regimen might select for resistance. For cases in which symptoms persist, a 1- to 2-week course of moxifloxacin is recommended.12 However, this has not been validated by clinical trials, and failures of the 7-day regimen have been reported.46

Partners of patients who test positive for M genitalium should also be tested and undergo clinically applicable screening for nongonococcal urethritis, cervicitis, and pelvic inflammatory disease.12


Trichomoniasis, caused by the parasite Trichomonas vaginalis, is the most prevalent nonviral STI in the United States. It disproportionately affects black women, in whom the prevalence is 13%, compared with 1% in non-Hispanic white women.47 It is also present in 26% of women with symptoms who are seen in STI clinics and is highly prevalent in incarcerated populations. It is uncommon in men who have sex with men.48

In men, trichomoniasis manifests as urethritis, epididymitis, or prostatitis. While most infected women have no symptoms, they may experience vaginitis with discharge that is diffuse, frothy, pruritic, malodorous, or yellow-green. Vaginal and cervical erythema (“strawberry cervix”) can also occur.

Screening for trichomoniasis

Current guidelines of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend testing for T vaginalis in women who have symptoms and routinely screening in women who are HIV-positive, regardless of symptoms. There is no evidence to support routine screening of pregnant women without symptoms, and pregnant women who do have symptoms should be evaluated according to the same guidelines as for nonpregnant women.12 Testing can be considered in patients who have no symptoms but who engage in high-risk behaviors and in areas of high prevalence.

A lack of studies using sensitive methods for T vaginalis detection has hampered a true estimation of disease burden and at-risk populations. Screening recommendations may evolve in upcoming clinical guidelines as the field advances.

As infection can recur, women should be retested 3 months after initial diagnosis.12

NAAT is the preferred test for trichomoniasis

Commercially available diagnostic tests for trichomoniasis include culture, antigen testing, and NAAT.49 While many clinicians do their own wet-mount microscopy for a rapid result, this method has low sensitivity.50 Similarly, antigen testing and culture perform poorly compared with NAATs, which are the gold standard for detection.51,52 A major advantage of NAATs for T vaginalis detection is that they combine high sensitivity and fast results, facilitating diagnosis and appropriate treatment of patients and their partners.

In spite of these benefits, adoption of molecular diagnostic testing for T vaginalis has lagged behind that for chlamydia and gonorrhea.53 FDA-cleared NAATs are available for testing vaginal, cervical, or urine specimens from women, but until recently, there were no approved assays for testing in men. The Cepheid Xpert TV assay, which is valid for male urine specimens to diagnose other sexually transmitted diseases, has demonstrated excellent diagnostic sensitivity for T vaginalis in men and women.54 Interestingly, a large proportion of male patients in this study had no symptoms, suggesting that screening of men in high-risk groups may be warranted.

7-day metronidazole treatment beats single-dose treatment

The first-line treatment for trichomoniasis has been a single dose of metronidazole 2 g by mouth, but in a recent randomized controlled trial,55 a course of 500 mg by mouth twice a day for 7 days was 45% more effective at 4 weeks than a single dose, and it should now be the preferred regimen.

In clinical trials,56 a single dose of tinidazole 2 g orally was equivalent or superior to metronidazole 2 g and had fewer gastrointestinal side effects, but it is more expensive.

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Appropriate laboratory testing in Lyme disease

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