With additional reporting by Michelle Andrews.
Jessica* had been seeing her boyfriend for about eight months when he texted her and asked her how she was feeling.
It wasn’t the kind of casual ‘how are you’ you’d expect of a morning, or a concern, perhaps, the winter chill was running her down. It was laced with nervous probing and a desire to uncover whether she had compromised his sexual health.
“I received a text message two days after seeing him for the last time. He asked me whether I was feeling OK and whether I had any symptoms of chlamydia or if it were possible that I had contracted it since the last time I saw him,” Jessica told Mamamia.
“He admitted that he had chlamydia twice before years ago and that he was experiencing symptoms generally associated with chlamydia such as pain when urinating and symptoms had shown up two days after sex.”
For Jessica, it was the text of her nightmares. She admits she is “paranoid” about catching any form of an STI, and gets urine and blood tests regularly to ensure she’s not infected with anything that could have lasting consequences on her fertility and sexual health.
It couldn’t be her. Could it?
After furious texting back and forth, and multiple visits and testing at her local GP, the doctors gave her the all-clear. Her boyfriend wasn’t so lucky. Though he had been tested for all major STIs, nothing was proving a match for his symptoms. And nothing could dull the burning sensations he found himself overwhelmed by.
“As his symptoms didn’t go away on their own, he did some research, googling his symptoms. [He] came across an STI called mycoplasma genitalium,” she recalled.
Mycoplasma genitalium (MG), the STI both Jessica and her partner had never heard of, turned out to be the cause of Jessica’s boyfriend’s pain. But in all their extensive tests with doctors and many visits to pathology, not a single conversation about its name, symptoms or existence arose.
After hassling her doctors for another test, this time for MG, she says she had a sense she was appearing like a “hypochondriac”. She had been to the doctor three times in two weeks, and her doctor knew very little of the STI her boyfriend had been infected with. She was embarrassed and frustrated, and her relationship didn’t survive the strain.
How did she get to the age of 30, she thought, and not know it all about sexual health?
More common than gonorrhoea but less common than chlamydia, MG isn’t widely known, can be very hard to test for, and according to a report by the ABC is becoming resistant to antibiotics.
“It’s essentially acting like a superbug, with research showing at least 50 per cent of people have a drug-resistant MG, limiting their treatment options,” Professor Suzanne Garland from Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital told the publication on Thursday.
While that information may sound scary, there is finally some good news: this week it was announced that an Australian-developed screening test, covered by Medicare, is being made widely available to GPs that also identifies which treatments are likely to work for individual patients presenting with MG.
While testing facilities are already in place in Victoria, NSW and Queensland, it is expected they will be in all other states by the middle of the year – a major development for women like Jessica, who have suffered in the dark.
MG is the newest STI to be discovered by scientists, according to Dr Denton Callander, Research Fellow at The Kirby Institute, and can ultimately lead to serious complications including pelvic inflammatory disease and even infertility.
“We’ve known about the existence of MG for some time but only over the past few years have scientists started to consider it a sexually transmissible infection,” Dr Denton told Mamamia about the infection in September 2017.
How to talk to your kids about sexual health and condoms. Post continues after audio.
“In fact, it’s the first new STI that’s been identified since chlamydia back in the 1970s. Recently, advances in diagnostic testing have made possible commercial screening for the bug, so we’re starting to learn more about who is most likely to be infected, risk factors, and associations with other infections.”
In his interview with Mamamia, Dr Callander said MG is a bacteria that can live in your throat, bottom or urethra. It can be transmitted through vaginal, oral or anal sex, and in terms of its symptoms? Well, Jessica’s boyfriend was right. The symptoms are similar to chlamydia, including discharge and pelvic pain.
In Jessica’s case, she realised quickly you simply don’t know what you don’t know.
“My intention is to not blame and shame anyone but to make this STI known to the public. We all know about the standard, herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and HIV and doctors test for those,” Jessica told Mamamia last year.
“I asked a couple of close girlfriends is they had ever heard of MG and they hadn’t. We should push our GPs to be educated on these other STIs and make it a part of the regular testing.”
Thankfully, it appears that’s beginning to happen.
*Not her real name.
The new Mycoplasma genitalium test involves a urine test or a swab of the genital area. A Medicare rebate of $28.65 is available.
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