Rates of a super-STI which can cause infertility in women have soared 60-fold over the last decade, official figures revealed today.
More than 5,000 cases of mycoplasma genitalium — which is becoming resistant to drugs — were logged in England in 2021.
By comparison, just 79 cases of MG were recorded when experts first proved it was a sexually transmitted infection seven years ago.
Despite being discovered in the 1980s, very few people, even doctors, knew about it until very recently.
Mycoplasma genitalium, also known as M. genitalium or M. gen, causes serious symptoms including infertility, but is resistant to four different types of antibiotics. It is estimated that up to one in five sexually active US citizens could have it
The data revealed that MG rates have soared by a fifth in a year in the space of one year, from 4,230 in 2020 to 5,109 in 2021. However, they are still slightly lower than pre-pandemic rates, with medics logging a sharp decline in STIs as lockdowns and social distancing reduced sexual activity. MG rates had been rising by up to five-fold year-on-year before the pandemic struck, with 431 cases in 2017, 1,981 in 2018 and 5,331 in 2019
HOW PREVALENT ARE STIS IN ENGLAND?
There were 311,604 STIs diagnosed in 2021, according to data from the UK Health Security Agency.
The figure is 0.5 per cent higher than 2020 but a third lower than pre-Covid levels, when 440,000 were diagnosed, on average, each year.
However, testing rates are lower than they were before the pandemic, which may mean some cases are slipping under the radar.
Genital Herpes: 21,649
Mycoplasma genitalium: 5,109
Non-specific genital infection: 14,471
Pelvic inflammatory disease and epididymitis: 10,437
Chlamydial pelvic inflammatory disease and epididymitis: 853
Genital warts: 28,280
Other new STI diagnoses: 13,630
That is because it is commonly misdiagnosed as chlamydia.
This mistake has allowed the bacteria to quietly grow stronger and spread under the radar.
And because it has been treated with the wrong drugs, it is growing resistant to antibiotics.
Some strains are already able to evade potent medicines, meaning patients have to take different drugs to clear the infection.
Most people who carry MG have no symptoms — but can still pass it onto others.
Bad cases can cause painful inflammation and watery discharge for men.
But the STI can be more serious for women, potentially causing womb scarring that leaves them infertile.
Today’s MG figures were released by the UK Health Security Agency, which monitors STI rates across England.
The data revealed that MG rates have soared by a fifth in the space of one year, from 4,230 in 2020 to 5,109 in 2021.
However, they are still slightly lower than pre-pandemic rates.
Medics logged a sharp decline in STIs across the board as lockdowns and social distancing rules reduced sexual activity.
The UKHSA stats also show that there was 311,604 new diagnoses of STIs in England in 2021.
This was up by 0.5 per cent from 309,921 in 2020.
The figure is a third lower than pre-Covid.
For comparison, an average of 440,000 new STIs were logged in the five years before the virus first sparked chaos.
Overall, one in 172 men (1.6 per cent higher than 2020) and one in 207 women (14.9 per cent lower than 2020) found out they had an STI in 2021.
However, charities warned that testing rates are still lagging behind pre-Covid levels.
The UKHSA data revealed that there was a ‘marked’ eight per cent rise in syphilis cases last year, with 7,506 new diagnoses compared to 6,923 in 2020. The UKHSA reported that cases had nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels and ‘exceeded them’ in some parts of England
Some 51,074 gonorrhoea cases were diagnosed in 2021, up by 841 from 2020. However, rates are still below pre-pandemic, with a peak of 70,908 annual cases logged in 2019
Chlamydia remains the most commonly diagnosed STI, making up 51 per cent of all confirmed cases. However, around 2,000 fewer cases were detected in 2021 compared to 2020
What is Mgen?
Mycoplasma genitalium, also known as M. genitalium or M. gen., is a sexually transmitted disease.
It is a bacterial infection which infects the urinary and genital tracts of men and women.
First discovered in London in the 1980s, it is passed on through sexual contact.
Babies can also contract the infection from their mothers before they are born through the amniotic fluid.
It is more common in young people and also in people who have unprotected sex and who have multiple sexual partners (though this is true for all STIs).
The infection is similar to chlamydia, but is caused by a different bacterium.
Past M. gen. cases may have been mistaken for and treated as chlamydia, allowing it to gradual developing resistance to different antibiotics.
However, it is possible to have both infections.
- Bleeding and swollen genitals
- Urethritis, swelling and irritation of the urethra, making it painful to pee
- Abnormal discharge
- Cervical swelling
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in women, causing pain in the lower abdomen and bleeding after sex
While swabs and blood tests for chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and HIV at sexual health services increased by a fifth compared to 2020, the rate is still 13.2 per cent lower than in 2019 — meaning more cases may be slipping under the radar than previous years.
Chlamydia remains the most commonly diagnosed STI, making up 51 per cent of all confirmed cases.
However, around 2,000 fewer cases were detected in 2021.
Its symptoms include pain when passing urine and unusual discharge from the vagina, penis or anus.
Women may also suffer tummy pain, bleeding after sex and in between periods. Men may have painful and swollen testicles.
Some 51,074 gonorrhoea cases were diagnosed, up by 841 from 2020. Again, rates are still below pre-pandemic, with a peak of 70,908 annual cases logged in 2019.
Sufferers usually have thick green or yellow discharge from the vagina or penis and pain when urinating, while women may also suffer bleeding between periods.
Small increases were also noted herpes diagnoses (1,133 cases, up by 5.5 per cent) and genital warts (848 cases, up by 3.1 per cent).
The data also revealed that there was a ‘marked’ eight per cent rise in syphilis cases last year, with 7,506 new diagnoses compared to 6,923 in 2020.
The UKHSA reported that cases had nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels in England and ‘exceeded them’ in some parts of the country.
Syphilis symptoms include small, usually painless, sores on the genitals and anus that sometimes spread to the mouth, lips and hands.
It can also trigger flu-like symptoms, swollen glands and patchy hair loss. If not treated, it can lead to fatal heart and brain problems.
Ian Green, chief executive at sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust, said the figures show testing rates are still ‘lagging behind’ pre-Covid levels.
He said: ‘This comes at a time when the already very limited capacity of sexual health services is being swallowed up by leading the country’s monkeypox response, which is displacing HIV and STI testing.
‘The Government needs to act with urgency to properly resource the monkeypox response and mitigate the impact on wider sexual health service to avoid an increase in STIs, unwanted pregnancies and people contracting HIV.’
On STI rates, he added: ‘Levels of syphilis and gonorrhoea remain high while testing levels aren’t back to where they were before Covid.
‘That’s why we need the Government to set out its vision for sexual and reproductive health in its long over-due sexual and reproductive health action plan.
‘These latest numbers show why the Government must urgently set out what good looks like with the funding attached to achieve that vision.’