Over a month ago, the International Society for Sexually Transmitted Disease Research conference released information from Quebec about a gonorrhea that is resistant to all known antibiotics. A friend gave it to me, the news that is, and I was worried. I love her dearly, but she can be quite the drama queen…let’s face it, so can I. During the same ride home, it wasn’t long before we moved onto something else glittery, gossipy, and sensational and it completely slipped my mind. We stopped at a red light along Bloor before Church and a cute guy passed by. I shamelessly said to her (with the windows a jar), something like, “Looky over there! Yum.” That’s when she grabbed my leg and sharply stopped my ogling, “Don’t! Remember?” I was, for a second, oblivious to the reference she was making. I had no idea I could get “a strand of gonorrhea that is resistant to all antibiotics” from only looking at someone who, sadly, didn’t even look back.
I did some research and the articles I found nothing to really relief my worry—it’s in Japan, but it could be here. If you are sexually active and don’t use condoms for oral sex—watch out! A week after information had been released, it came up in another conversation. Another friend said, “I was going to post an article up on my wall, but it seemed so last week.” Almost two months have passed, so this may be ‘so two months ago’, but after taking UNI237: Introduction to HIV/AIDS with Scott Rayter and Hani Kim five months ago, news on this seems so thirty plus years ago. Sander Gilman argues that with the “‘taming’ of syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases with the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s left our culture with a series of images of the mortally infected and infecting patient suffering a morally repugnant disease but without a sufficiently powerful disease to attach these images to…AIDS [became] the perfect disease to attach these images to” (qtd. in Sturken 149). Because of AIDS activism and the development of antiretroviral drugs, HIV/AIDS no longer has to be or be seen as “a death sentence.” While the work of both modern medicine and AIDS activists has not completely eliminated the stigma towards people living with the virus, the moral repugnancy of the virus and syndrome has lessened. Even more striking has been the change in view of gonorrhea, since the introduction of penicillin has amounted to a ‘cure’. According to one CBC report on HO41, before the appearance of antibiotic-resistant strains, “gonorrhea went from a dreaded curse to an inconvenience” (“Resistant Gonorrhea Strand”). This same report also mentions “the dark days looming once again” (“Resistant Gonorrhea Strand”), in line with Gillman’s argument, that associations of extreme “morally repugnancy”—which were once transferred from syphilis and gonorrhea to AIDS—may be just as easily transferred back onto gonorrhea.
Today, the Internet can be utilized to send out what is currently considered not only correct, but ‘politically correct’ information on how to protect oneself from all strands of gonorrhea. Indeed, Woodard cites the Center for Disease Control’s advice—abstinence, long-term monogamous relationships, and “consistent and correct use of condoms.” During the “pre-antibiotic era” and even after, information on how to protect oneself consisted of what he now see as misinformation— protection consisted of staying away from unsafe women and unsafe places, rather than focusing on unsafe sexual practices. However, the “dark days” of inscribing moral repugnancy onto gonorrhea and those infected seems to be making a comeback. Indeed, there is no stopping this current news item from citing a 1940’s venereal disease poster that exclaims, “She May Look Clean, But—” and another poster of a scantily clad woman covering the earth. The headlines of these current articles are just as alarming and sensational: “Japanese Prostitute Sparks Fears of Antibiotic Resistant Gonorrhea” and “Drug Resistant Gonorrhea Case Worries Doctors.”
While a warning of this type may be distressing, the fact that it is a warning rather than a report that there are actually strands of H041 here in North America creates the impression that this strand can be contained. Dr. Vanessa Allen, in Sheryl Ubelacker’s Toronto Star article, characterizes the “pre-antibiotic era” as an era when people saw the “consequences of chronic gonorrhea infection.” Allen predicts, “we’ll go to potentially an era where it will be like the pre-antibiotic era.” While the use of the word “potentially” may be used to prevent fear mongering, it is one word the myth of progress utilizes to reinforce itself. Indeed, the words “potentially” and “like” (qtd. in Ubelacker) points to a kind of optimism that because the year is 2011, with all of its advancements despite antibiotic resistance, we will not ever go back fully to “the pre-antibiotic era.” Indeed, even in an era where antibiotics have or had the potential to ‘cure’ strands of gonorrhea, such treatment was not universally available. In 1999, for example, there were 27.2 million reported cases in South and Southeast Asia (AVERT). An overgeneralized distinction between the two eras cannot really be made if parts of the world that have de facto remained in a pre-antibiotic era. Furthermore, even the places where antibiotics have been available, the “pre-antibiotic era” was never really gone, but only deferred. Allen herself notes that “There’s been a long history of Neisseria gonorrhoeae losing its susceptibility to drugs used to treat it … in fact, we’re now on the fifth or six class of antimicrobials.” In the face of this worry, there seems to be a myth about modern progress which infers that some alternative to antibiotics will be developed to prevent the return of chronic gonorrhea infections. It seems that any claim to superiority that the current antibiotic era can establish, over the “pre-antibiotic era”, is that with our use of antibiotics we have changed bugs to superbugs. Because of globalization, Dr. William Schaffner’s warning in L.L. Woodard’s Yahoo! News article is right. Bacteria “‘don’t need a passport’” [sic]. Because of the permeability of national borders, disease control becomes about making moral borders that the individual can place on his/hir/her sexuality and body. Consequently, those who do not enforce these bodily borders may then be constructed as immoral.