Zoom in on microorganisms

Germs that infect humans

Neisseria gonorrhoeae

Neisseria gonorrhoeae

© Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc.

Microorganism: the bacterium that causes gonorrhea is Neisseria gonorrheae.

Disease: gonorrhea (drawing of a little man having difficulty urinating.) (see Health Canada Information (ask the Museum what are “info Santé Canada”). In medical language, the term blennorrhagia is used.

History: since 1970, following an awareness campaign, the rate of gonorrhea infection dropped sharply in nearly all western countries, including Canada.

Current situation: gonorrhea is the second most important STD of bacterial origin in Canada. In 1998, 5,060 cases of gonorrhea were reported. This disease is now 14 times less important than it was in 1980.

Forecast: while the number of cases of gonorrhea is decreasing, the number of antibiotic-resistant strains is increasing each year. The Canadian objective in the fight against gonorrhea is to eliminate transmission locally by the year 2010.

Mechanism of action of the microorganism: after the microorganisms have entered the body through sexual contact, they attach themselves to the internal wall of the urinary tract or the vagina through hair-like appendages called pili. This attachment prevents the bacteria from being evacuated outside the body by the flow of urine or the normal vaginal discharges. The cells of the immune system then come to attack and eat the bacteria.

Symptoms of the disease: many affected individuals show no symptoms. People who do have symptoms can experience a burning sensation on urinating (this is why the disease is commonly known as “chaude-pisse,” meaning “hot piss” in French), and discharge from the genitals; women can also experience spotting after intercourse. A gonorrhea infection can cause infertility in women. An infected woman can transmit the infection to her child during childbirth. This can cause an infection in the eyelid, i.e., conjunctivitis. Furthermore, the child may become blind. This is why doctors put medication in babies’ eyes when they are born. These are antibiotics such as tetracycline or erythromycin.

Hosts: humans

Incubation period: two to seven days

Contagious period: the contagious period can last several months when the disease is left untreated. Appropriate treatment eliminates contagion in a few hours.

Transmission: this disease is mainly transmitted by contact with the genitals, anus, or mouth of a person who has the disease. During childbirth, a mother who has gonorrhea can transmit it to her child.

Discoverer of the microorganism: Neisser in 1879

Treatment: certain antibiotics such as penicillin or tetracycline. Sexual relations must be avoided during treatment.

Geographical distribution of the microorganism: this disease can be found worldwide. However, in the last twenty years, following awareness campaigns, an important decrease of the disease has been noted in industrialized countries.

Prevention: use of a latex condom

Vaccine: not available