Meningitis vaccine could help combat sex disease

Researchers at the University of Auckland found that people who were injected with a vaccine against meningitis B during a New Zealand immunization program between 2004 and 2006 were about 30 per cent less likely to contract gonorrhea than a control group.

Concerns have been growing over "untreatable" strains of gonorrhoea, and in 2012, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control warned that drug-resistant forms of the STI were spreading across Europe.

As drug resistance spreads, doctors are diagnosing more and more cases that can not be treated by antibiotics, making it a major public health concern. They develop resistance to drugs by transferring genes in atypical ways and recombining with related bacterial species.

"We need to understand what was magical about this vaccine", Petousis-Harris says. "But now there's hope", she added. In the absence of a vaccine, the government requested help from the World Health Organization to "tailor-make" one.

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. "If the 4CMenB vaccine, which is now available in many countries, is shown to have a similar effect to the MeNZB vaccine, then administering it in adolescent immunisation programmes could result in declines in gonorrhoea", co-author of the study, Professor Steven Black, Cincinnati Children's Hospital, concluded. Despite being very different in symptoms and mode of transmission, there is a genetic match of up to 90 per cent between gonorrhoea and meningitis bacteria.

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The 11 participating clinics had 15,067 individuals - 15,090 with chlamydia, 1,759 with gonorrhea, and 1,329 with both - over the study period from 2004 through 2014.

Petousis-Harris and her co-researchers, who had access to a database recording events during the meningococcal B outbreak, set to work testing his hypothesis. "About one-third of those vaccinated were protected", Petousis-Harris said. For now, the best way to protect yourself against gonorrhoea, chlamydia and other STIs is to always use a condom during vaginal, oral and anal sex.

"This is exactly what we saw", Petousis-Harris wrote in an email.

The researchers also discovered that vaccinated people were significantly less likely to become infected with gonorrhea than people who had not received the vaccine: 41% vs. 51%. This is a 13% increase from the previous year. As the New Scientist magazine speculates, if the biological mechanism is discovered, we may see a sudden drop in gonorrhoea cases in 20 years' time.

If left untreated, gonorrhoea can lead to complications such as pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy and infertility.

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The importance of preventing people developing a gonorrhoea infection is of mounting importance as the infection is getting much harder to treat.

The study was supported by GSK Vaccines (formerly Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics). WHO is now strengthening laboratory and epidemiological surveillance systems in the countries of the African meningitis belt to detect and characterize the serogroups responsible for epidemics to guide its response effectively; assure supplies of effective drugs and ability of health care systems to deliver these to the affected populations; protect the population at risk through mass immunization, if the vaccine is available.

"These findings are encouraging", Rhyne said.

The findings should "reinvigorate" gonorrhea vaccine research, commented Kate Seib, PhD, of Griffiths University in Gold Coast, Australia. This would be the first time that any vaccine has offered protection against gonorrhoea, according to their study published yesterday in The Lancet.

The current meningitis B vaccine (Bexsero) is available in several countries and also targets the outer membrane vesicle, as well as three other antigens, the authors noted. "It doesn't kill, but it maims". "This is really a universal issue", he said.

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  • Jermaine Castillo