A mass vaccination campaign for a meningitis outbreak in New Zealand offers a ray of hope in the fight toward reduced rates of gonorrhea, an entirely different kind of illness. This is the first time a vaccine has shown protection against the sexually transmitted infection.

The World Health Organization recently warned that gonorrhea had become difficult to treat and was rapidly developing resistance to antibiotics. The disease causes around 78 million new cases globally each year.

Mass Vaccination In NZ

Back in the early 2000s, a huge epidemic of meningococcal B disease struck New Zealand, with very high disease rates, the team of researchers wrote, adding the government’s request to the WHO to help create a specific vaccine for it.

Meningococcal disease is the bacterial type of meningitis and affects the membrane protecting the brain. It can be spread from person to person typically via kissing, coughing, or sneezing.

“Meningococcal B disease is very lethal disease, and even people who survive are left with a lot of lifelong medical problems,” said study author Dr. Steve Black in a CNN report.

The vaccine targeting the bacteria was used in a mass vaccination drive from 2004 to 2006, inoculating about 90 percent of the New Zealand population.

Black and his colleagues were curious as to what the vaccine’s other effects could be. Black focused on New Zealand’s gonorrhea statistics, as the bacteria causing gonorrhea and that causing meningococcal disease are considered “cousin” organisms and have 85 to 90 percent similar genetic composition.

Unintended Benefit

They studied patients in sexual health clinics ages 15 to 30 years who were eligible to receive the vaccine and were diagnosed with gonorrhea or chlamydia (or both).

There were 1,241 gonorrhea cases in the subjects. Vaccinated individuals emerged as significantly less likely to be infected with gonorrhea than those who did not receive the shot, or a rate of 41 percent versus 51 percent.

Accounting for other factors such as gender and ethnicity, the team concluded that receiving the vaccine decreased gonorrhea incidence by about 31 percent.

The New Zealand vaccine is no longer available, but the same membrane-attacking component has been incorporated in a new vaccine targeting a broad range of group B Neisseria meningitidis. Called Bexsero, the meningococcal vaccine is developed by GlaxoSmithKline and is created to fight more strains than before.

"Based upon our results, assessment of this vaccine's potential effect on gonorrhea infection seems warranted," the researchers wrote in the journal The Lancet.

Health officials said that gonorrhea remains treatable in the United States, but warned that resistance to current antibiotics may develop. Practices such as oral sex help spread “super gonorrhea” and make the problem harder to address.

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