What is MG?

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Doctor with male patient. Image Source/Photodisc/Getty Images

One day in November of 2015, I checked my news alerts to find e-mail after e-mail with headlines like the following:

"MG, The Newest STD On The Block, Found In Over 1% Of The Population" - Medical Daily

"'New' sexually transmitted infection 'MG' may be widespread" - NHS Choices

"New STD often with no symptoms could affect hundreds of thousands of adults in Britain " - The Mirror

"Scientists identify new STD that could affect hundreds of thousands of adults - and it often has NO symptoms" - The Daily Mail"

"Hundreds of thousands could already be infected by new sexual disease" - The Daily Telegraph

Despite all that hype, "MG" isn't a new STD. It's just shorthand for mycoplasma genitalium. Mycoplasma have been known about for decades, although it wasn't clear until recently the role they play in conditions like bacterial vaginosis and non-gonococcal urethritis.

The headlines and the hype are actually an interesting case-study in how little people know about sexually transmitted diseases. For example, the implication that "MG" is unusually stealthy is false. Many, if not most, STDs have no symptoms in the majority of the people they infect. It's one of the reasons STDs are known as the hidden epidemic.

Similarly, "over 1% of the population," isn't actually that common for an STD. Viral infections such as genital herpes and HPV are found in much higher percentages of the sexually active population. In the U.S., for example, prevalence estimates for those diseases are 16 percent and 5-6 percent (down from 11-12 percent in the pre-vaccine era) respectively.

That puts "over 1%" into perspective

That isn't to downplay the importance of the UK data. The fact that mycoplasma is a common bacterial infection is useful information. So was the data more clearly linking it to sexual activity, as it adds to the evidence that the mycoplasma is sexually transmitted.

That said, the reporting is over the top.

My hope is that the hype will improve screening and treatment options available to everyone. But it's also the perfect example of how questionable science reporting/headline writing can create the sense of a panic where none is warranted.

The headline I think should be coming out in response to the "MG" hysteria is this.

Reporting on 'MG' demonstrates that most people are unaware of how common STDs are - Lack of symptoms leads to lack of awareness.

Sources

Anagrius C et al. "Mycoplasma genitalium: prevalence, clinical significance, and transmission" Sex Transm Infect 2005; 81: 458-462

CDC. "CDC Analysis of National Herpes Prevalence" Accessed 11/14/2015 at http://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/herpes-nhanes-2010.htm

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance 2013. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2014

Manhart LE et al "Mycoplasma genitalium among young adults in the United States: an emerging sexually transmitted infection." Am J Public Health. 2007 Jun;97(6):1118-25.

Pingmin W, et al. "Prevalence survey on condom use and infection of urogenital mycoplasmas in female sex workers in China" Contraception. 2005. 72:217– 220

Sonnenberg P, Ison CA, Clifton S, Field N, Tanton C, Soldan K, Beddows S, Alexander S, Khanom R, Saunders P, Copas AJ, Wellings K, Mercer CH, Johnson AM. Epidemiology of Mycoplasma genitalium in British men and women aged 16-44 years: evidence from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3). Int J Epidemiol. 2015 Nov 3. pii: dyv194.

Tosh AK et al. "Mycoplasma genitalium among adolescent women and their partners." J Adolesc Health. 2007 May;40(5):412-7.

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