Bacteria causing two different illnesses belong to the same family and share much of the same genetic code providing unexpected cross protection
Hopes to fight untreatable strains of gonorrhoea have risen after it emerged that a new vaccine against meningitis unexpectedly reduced the risk of people getting the sexually transmitted infection.
Some strains of gonorrhoea are resistant to all available drugs, making vaccine development an urgent global health priority. But according to a study in The Lancet, a vaccine has offered protection against the sexually transmitted disease for the first time.
Gonorrhoea spreads through unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex and many of those who contract the disease experience no symptoms. If left untreated, the disease can cause infertility and can increase the transmission of HIV infection.
A New Zealand meningitis epidemic in the early 2000s prompted the mass vaccination of a million people and fortuitously set the scene for the current study. The vaccine used, known as MeNZB, was designed to protect against meningococcal group B infection the cause of the most deadly form of meningitis.
But intriguingly, over the next few years, scientists noticed fewer gonorrhoea cases than expected in those who had been vaccinated against meningitis.
Dr Helen Petousis-Harris, a vaccine specialist from the University of Auckland who led the study, was optimistic: Some types of gonorrhoea are now resistant to every antibiotic we have, and there appeared [to be] little we could do to prevent the steady march of gonorrhoea to superbug status. But now theres hope, she added.
The research team studied over 14,000 people aged 15-30 whod been diagnosed with gonorrhoea at sexual health clinics across New Zealand and who had been eligible for the MeNZB vaccine during the emergency vaccination programme. They found vaccinated individuals were over 30% less likely to develop gonorrhoea.
Despite meningitis and gonorrhoea being very different illnesses, both are caused by bacteria from the same family and share much of the same genetic code, providing a possible explanation for the cross-protection that the team observed.
More than 78 million people worldwide get gonorrhoea each year with most infections in men and women under the age of 25. It is the second most common bacterial sexually transmitted infection in the UK after chlamydia. In England alone, almost 35,000 people were affected in 2014.
British Association for Sexual Health and HIVs President, Dr Elizabeth Carlin, who was not involved in the study, was more sceptical: These early findings are to be welcomed but its important to keep in perspective that the vaccine offered only moderate protection …. an individual receiving this vaccine remains susceptible to gonorrhoea but just less so than if unvaccinated.
The MeNZB vaccine used in the current study is no longer manufactured, but Petousis-Harris has high hopes for a similar meningitis vaccine called 4CMenB, available in many countries.
Petousis-Harris was clear about what needed to happen next. We need an urgent assessment of current meningitis vaccines to see if they protect against gonorrhoea. It may be possible to eliminate many gonorrhoea infections using a vaccine with only moderate protection. It does not need to be perfect, she added.