Last updated July 17, 2017 at 3:30 pm
Data from a mass immunisation program in New Zealand suggests a new direction for gonorrhoea vaccine research.
Gonorrhoea is scary. The symptoms of this sexually-transmissible infection are nasty, the long terms effects are serious, and we just found out that it’s rapidly becoming resistant to all the antibiotics we can throw at it (by which I obviously mean all the antibiotics we can responsibly prescribe).
But there’s good news from Kiwi scientists. They found that vaccinating a population against meningococcal B causes gonorrhoea rates to drop by 31%. This news couldn’t be better timed considering the aforementioned rise of antibiotic resistance.
From 2004 to 2006, about a million New Zealanders were part of a mass immunisation programme and were vaccinated with MeNZB against meningococcal B. This was 81% of the population under 20 years old – a huge sample size. Now, more than a decade later, researchers from the University of Auckland were able to look at of sexual health data and statistics to find out the impact of these efforts – you can check out the study here. Basically, if you had the meningococcal vaccine, you were less likely to have gonorrhoea. (However, if you contracted chlamydia the vaccine was slightly less effective. As if you needed another reason to try to not get chlamydia.)
These are promising results on their own, as every little bit helps, but what’s even more exciting is the idea of a gonorrhoea vaccine.
So what’s the connection between meningococcal B and gonorrhoea? About 80-90% of the genetics of the bacteria responsible for each disease. That last 10-20% makes a huge difference when it comes to their transmission and symptoms, but there might be just enough in common – ‘a biologically plausible mechanism’ – to offer cross-protection.
Dr Helen Petousis-Harris, the lead author, sums it up:
“This is the first time a vaccine has shown any protection against gonorrhoea. At the moment, the mechanism behind this immune response is unknown, but our findings could inform future vaccine development for both the meningococcal and gonorrhoea vaccines.”
The MeNZB vaccine is no longer available – it was developed for a specific outbreak – so there’s no point rushing out to get that jab. But that’s not really the point – the fact is that we know which direction to take future research so that we can have the right vaccine for the right disease.