A meningococcal vaccine developed in South Australia has been recommended as a routine targeted response to tackle the explosive outbreak of gonorrhoea in the United Kingdom.
Gonorrhoea diagnoses in 2022 in the UK were the largest annual number reported since records began, surpassing pre-pandemic levels, with a 50% increase in the past year.
There were 82,592 diagnosed cases of gonorrhoea reported in 2022, which is a 50% increase from 54,961 cases in 2021. Authorities say the increase likely reflects an increase in more targeted sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing and increased STI transmission within populations practising unsafe sex.
Gonorrhea is the second most common STI in the UK, behind chlamydia. The infection is caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which is passed between people through unprotected vaginal, oral, or anal sex. The infection can also be passed from a pregnant woman to her offspring.
The UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advice issued on 10 November says that a targeted vaccination programme should use the “4CMenB” vaccine for the prevention of gonorrhoea.
The JCVI says the MenB vaccine is currently used in the routine childhood programme for the prevention of meningococcal disease (meningitis and septicaemia).
It was developed in South Australia by a team led by Professor Helen Marshall of the Women’s and Children’s Health Network and the University of Adelaide.
Professor Marshall was named the South Australian Scientist of the Year for 2023 overnight for her vaccine work.
“Here in South Australia we have shown in the first 4 years of meningococcal B vaccine program, 72 cases of the disease have been prevented in children from 4 to 8…and a reduction in gonorrhoea in young people through vaccine cross protection,” Marshall said when accepting the award from the SA Acting Premier Susan Close.
“We just found out this week that based on our findings here in South Australia, the Joint Committee for Immunisation and Vaccines in the UK is recommending the vaccine not only for protection against meningococcal disease but a new recommendation for the vaccine to be used to drive down gonorrhoea, which is out of control, globally.”
A study at the Robinson Research Institute found the vaccine provided protection against gonorrhoea – researchers concluded it was about 33 per cent effective in preventing gonorrhoea in teenagers.
Researchers believe the one vaccine can provide protection against the two very different diseases due to cross-protective antibodies, as the meningococcal and gonococcal bugs share 90 per cent of their genes.
The Robinson Research Institute at the University of Adelaide says SA’s world-first Meningococcal B Immunisation Program was introduced for infants aged under four years in October 2018, before being rolled out four months later to include adolescents aged 15 to 20 years.
In July 2021, the program was permanently added to South Australia’s immunisation program for babies and young people.
In accepting the award for SA’s top researcher for 2023, Marshall urged scientists to present evidence to policy makers which they could not refute.
“I really don’t like it when people say no to me,” she said. ”I find it much harder for someone to say no if you have presented clear evidence for change.
“Evidence is extremely powerful.
“I’m hoping this evidence will also change policy in the Northern Territory where rates of gonorrhoea are the highest in Australia, and maybe even a national program to better protect women and Aboriginal young people who carry the highest burden of disease.”
Marshall says scientists have the responsibility to ensure: ”the evidence we generate is visible to policy makers and the community.”
“As scientists we must continue to build the evidence, and advocate for change, at the highest level, for a better world.”
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