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What infectious disease should parents be most worried about?


I think the question was intended as polite, dinner party chit chat ... maybe an attempt by a gracious hostess to make sure everyone was engaged in conversation.

“So what pediatric infectious disease should parents be most worried about?” she asked me.

I’ll admit that a couple of perfectly respectable and noncontroversial possibilities crossed my mind before I answered.

Acute flaccid myelitis? Measles?

When I replied, “gonorrhea,” conversation at the table pretty much stopped.

Let me explain. Acute flaccid myelitis is a polio-like neurologic condition that has been grabbing headlines. Yes, it is concerning that most cases have occurred in children and some affected children are left with long-term deficits. Technically though, AFM is a neurologic rather than an infectious disease. When cases occur, we suspect a viral infection but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no pathogen has been consistently identified from the spinal fluid of infected patients. From August 2014 to September 2018, the CDC received information on 368 confirmed cases, so AFM fortunately is still rare.

News reports describe measles outbreaks raging in Europe – more than 41,000 cases so far this year, and 40 deaths – and warn that the United States could be next. But let’s be honest: We have a safe and effective vaccine for measles and outbreaks like this don’t happen when individuals are appropriately immunized. Parents, immunize your children. If you are lucky enough to be traveling to Europe with your baby, remember that MMR vaccine is indicated for 6- to 11-month olds, but it doesn’t count in the 2-dose series.

But gonorrhea?

In 2017, the World Health Organization included Neisseria gonorrhoeae on its list of bacteria that pose the greatest threat to human health and for which new antibiotics are urgently needed. The popular media are calling N. gonorrhoeae one of the new “superbugs.” Globally, patients are being diagnosed with strains of gonorrhea that are resistant to all commonly used antibiotics. As reported during IDWeek 2018 this October, patients also are being diagnosed in the United States.

This photomicrograph reveals the histopathology in an acute case of gonococcal urethritis using Gram-stain technique. CDC

This photomicrograph reveals the histopathology in an acute case of gonococcal urethritis using Gram-stain technique.

Sancta St. Cyr, MD, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and her colleagues reported data from the Gonococcal Isolate Surveillance Project (GISP) and trends in multidrug resistant (MDR) and extensively-drug resistant (XDR) gonorrhea in the United States. A gonococcal isolate with resistance or elevated minimum inhibitory concentrations (MIC) to greater than or equal to two classes of antimicrobials is classified as MDR and an isolate with elevated MICs to greater than or equal to three classes of antimicrobials is classified as XDR. The MIC is the lowest antimicrobial concentration that inhibits growth of bacteria in the laboratory and rising MICs – evidence that higher levels of an antibiotic are needed to stop bacterial growth – can be an early indicator that resistance is emerging.

More than 150,000 gonococcal isolates were tested between 1987 and 2016. The first isolates with elevated MICs to cephalosporins and macrolides were identified in 1998, and since 2011, MDR resistance rates have hovered around 1%. In 2016, the rate was 1.1%, down from 1.3% in 2011. A single XDR isolate with resistance to fluoroquinolones with elevated MICs to both cephalosporins and macrolides was identified in 2011.

One could look at these data and ask if this is a “glass half full or half empty” situation, but I propose that clinicians and public health officials should not look at these data and be reassured that rates of MDR-gonorrhea remained stable between 2010 and 2016. According to a recent surveillance report released by the CDC, the absolute number of cases of gonorrhea has continued to rise. In 2017, there were 555,608 cases reported in the United States, a 67% increase since 2013. If we assume that rates of resistance in 2017 were similar to those in 2016, that’s more than 5,000 cases of MDR-gonorrhea in a single year.

“That’s bad,” one of my dining companions agreed. “But is gonorrhea really a pediatric issue?”

To answer that question, we just have to look at the numbers. According to the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the percentage of high school students who had ever had sex was approximately 40% and about 10% of students had four or more lifetime partners. More than 45% of sexually active students denied the use of a condom during the last sexual intercourse. Certainly, that puts many teenagers at risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that public health authorities report that half of all new STIs occur in individuals aged 15-24 years. Moreover, 25% of sexually active adolescent girls contract at least one STI.

Gonorrhea is the second most commonly reported notifiable disease in the United States, and according to the CDC, rates of disease in 2017 were highest among adolescents and young adults. In females specifically, the highest rates of gonorrhea were observed among those aged 20-24 years (684.8 cases per 100,000 females) and 15-19 years (557.4 cases per 100,000 females).

It makes sense that pediatricians and parents advocate for making the reduction of gonorrhea transmission rates a public health priority. We also need to recognize that prompt diagnosis and appropriate treatment are critical. Since 2015, dual therapy with ceftriaxone and azithromycin is the only CDC-recommended treatment for gonorrhea.

At that dinner party, my closest friend, who also happens to be a pediatrician, rolled her eyes and shot me look that I’m sure meant, “Nobody really wants to talk about gonorrhea over dessert.” Still, because she is a good friend she said, “So basically you’re saying that millions of teenagers are getting infected with a form of gonorrhea that takes at least two antibiotics to treat, and if this keeps up, we may see kids with untreatable infection. Now that is scary.”

Dr. Kristina A. Bryant, a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases at the University of Louisville (Ky.) and Norton Children's Hospital in Louisville

Dr. Kristina A. Bryant

I kept quiet after that but I wanted to mention that in 2017, less than 85% of patients diagnosed with gonorrhea at selected surveillance sites received the recommended treatment with two antibiotics. Patients with inadequately treated gonorrhea are at risk for a host of sequelae. Women can develop pelvic inflammatory disease, abscesses, chronic pelvic pain, and damage of the fallopian tubes that can lead to infertility. Men can develop epididymitis, which occasionally results in infertility. Rarely, N. gonorrhoeae can spread to the blood and cause life-threatening infection. Of course, patients who aren’t treated appropriately may continue to spread the bacteria. Scary? You bet.

For pediatricians who need a refresher course in the treatment of STIs, there are free resources available. The CDC’s 2015 STD Treatment Guidelines are available in a free app; the app contains a nice refresher on taking a sexual history. There also is a print version, wall chart, and pocket guide. Providers also may want to check out the National STD Curriculum offered by the University of Washington STD Prevention Training Center and the University of Washington. Visit

Dr. Bryant is a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases at the University of Louisville (Ky.) and Norton Children’s Hospital, also in Louisville. She said she had no relevant financial disclosures. Email her at [email protected].

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