Mycoplasma genitalium – the common STI you’ve never heard of
Mycoplasma genitalium: it’s the sexually transmitted infection (STI) you’ve never heard of. Even though Mycoplasma genitalium is more common than the bacterium that causes gonorrhea in young adults aged 18-27, it’s not always part of standard STI screenings. So what the heck is Mycoplasma genitalium? And should you be worrying about it?
Mycoplasma genitalium has flown under the radar in part because it’s relatively hard to detect. Just like other STIs, people who are infected may not have any symptoms, and if they do, their physicians may not always test for Mycoplasma genitalium–partly because it’s difficult to test for using traditional methods. However, thanks to increasingly accessible DNA-based STI screening—and increasing awareness—doctors are now more able than ever to diagnose and treat a Mycoplasma genitalium infection.
What the heck is Mycoplasma genitalium anyway ?
Mycoplasma genitalium is a bacterium that infects both male and female genitalia and is passed through sexual intercourse and genital contact. While you may not have heard of Mycoplasma genitalium, that’s not because it’s particularly rare: researchers have found that an estimated 1.3% of adults in developed countries ages 16-44 are infected.
Mycoplasma genitalium is responsible for 20-35% of cases of male urethritis (inflammation of the urethra) not caused by chlamydia or gonorrhea. In women, it is also associated with cervicitis (inflammation of the cervix), pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), and even infertility.
How do I know if I have Mycoplasma genitalium ?
It partly has to do with the nature of the bacterium itself. Mycoplasma genitalium is often symptomless or has symptoms that can be caused by several other infections. In one 2015 study, for example, over 94.4% of men and 56.7% of women who tested positive for Mycoplasma genitalium had not experienced any symptoms in the previous month. If symptoms do appear, men may experience penile discharge and irritation while urinating, while women may experience unusual vaginal discharge, painful sex, and spotting. These are similar to the symptoms of gonorrhea and chlamydia, so it can be tricky to identify Mycoplasma genitalium. Because of this, Mycoplasma genitalium was rarely discussed… simply because few people realized they had it.
Until recently, Mycoplasma genitalium has also been hard to test for. It’s a slow-growing organism, so traditional testing methods (which require isolating and culturing bacteria from a sample) don’t work for Mycoplasma genitalium. Instead, doctors rely on nucleic acid amplification testing (NAAT), which detects the bacterium’s DNA—and that process is often still possible only at big research labs.
That’s why uBiome’s sequencing-based SmartJane test can detect the presence of Mycoplasma genitalium where traditional STI screening might not, and makes testing easier and more accessible to boot. Your doctor can catch a potential Mycoplasma genitalium infection in a preventative SmartJane screening or even order a SmartJane test to check out whether any symptoms present could be Mycoplasma genitalium or another STI.
The same advances in genetics which allow researchers to perform NAAT tests have led to other exciting scientific developments. In 2008 Mycoplasma genitalium became the first bacterium to have its complete genome artificially synthesized by scientists, when a team of researchers from the Venter Institute managed to piece together its entire DNA sequence. In its own way, Mycoplasma genitalium has contributed to scientific progress, too.
What about treatment?
Difficulty in diagnosis isn’t the only difficult thing about Mycoplasma genitalium—it can also be tricky to treat.
Since Mycoplasma genitalium has no cell wall, many antibiotics, which target the cell wall, are ineffective. The current go-to treatment, the antibiotic azithromycin, has an 85% cure rate, but researchers have reported a rise in Mycoplasma genitalium’s resistance to azithromycin. Several other drugs are currently being tested, but they’re not on the market yet. If you do have Mycoplasma genitalium, your doctor can find the treatment that works for you.
Don’t panic—be proactive!
A sometimes symptomless, rarely screened for STI which is increasingly resistant to antibiotics? We know, we know: Mycoplasma genitalium doesn’t sound like a walk in the park.
But, as always, when it comes to STIs—and hey, your health in general—worrying won’t protect you. Instead, you can be proactive by following common-sense sexual health practices. As with all STIs, communicating with your partner about sexual health is key. Regular condom use especially during intercourse may help protect you from Mycoplasma genitalium, and regular sexual health checkups can enable you to identify and deal with STIs before they become a problem. The more you know, the more power you have.
April is STI Awareness Month! Talk to your healthcare provider about your vaginal health. uBiome’s SmartJane test identifies HPV, four common STIs including Mycoplasma genitalium, and 23 bacteria that can be vaginal risk factors for bacterial vaginosis and other conditions.
NOTE: SmartJane is not a replacement for Pap smears or well woman visits and does not detect cancer directly.