A flesh-eating sexually transmitted infection that causes "beefy red" ulcers is becoming more prevalent in the United Kingdom, a new report out Friday revealed.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the STI, donovanosis, is most common in parts of India, Papua New Guinea, central Australia and the Caribbean and southern Africa.
But research in the UK suggests that donovanosis has been steadily growing in cases since 2016. While the numbers are nowhere near the prevalence of other STIs – only 30 cases occurred in the UK in 2019, per public health records – the potential for more infections in the past two years (that data is not released yet) poses concern for more spreading, especially since it was even rarer to be found in the UK prior to five years ago.
'A wake-up call': 1 million new sexually transmitted infections every day, WHO reports
Dr. Melinda Pettigrew, a professor of Epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health, said she sees donovanosis as a "small scale concern right now," but notes spread in the U.S. is not out of the question.
"Donovanosis is still extremely rare," Pettigrew told USA TODAY. "But any increases in numbers are potentially concerning. Sexually transmitted infections are often undiagnosed and there may be missed infections so the true number could be slightly higher."
According to the National Library of Medicine, donovanosis is more common in men than women. Dr. Karan Raj recently said on a public TikTok video explaining the testing process for donovanosis that the potential spike in the UK is "terrifying," prompting social media users to express fear over the STI.
What are the symptoms of donovanosis?
The STI, donovanosis, leads to thick sores on the genital region and can progressively damage body tissue, according to data on Healthline.com. It can be caused by a bacteria named Klebsiella granulomatis.
Donovanosis does not eat at the flesh in actuality, but the disease has been called "flesh-eating" due to its gory appearance from "beefy red" ulcers on the skin.
"The initial symptoms – genital ulcers with a bright red color – are painless but should not be ignored," Pettigrew said. "Prompt diagnosis and treatment is also important."
Pettigrew emphasized that a person who believes they have been exposed to donovanosis should see a doctor and get diagnosed so they immediately take antibiotics as prescribed by the doctor. If someone is diagnosed with the STI, they should tell their sex partners about the infection so that they can also be treated.
How is the STI treated?
The STI, which presents a risk factor for the transmission of HIV, is generally transmitted through unprotected sex, but it can also be contracted through non-sexual skin-on-skin contact. Newborn babies are also at risk through their mothers.
Antibiotics are used to treat donovanosis, including azithromycin, doxycycline, ciprofloxacin, erythromycin and trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole. Most treatment courses run three weeks or until the sores have completely healed. A long-term treatment is needed to cure the disease.
The best way to prevent the STI is through protected sex. External and internal condoms are preferred preventive measures because they help protect against exposure to bodily fluids that may contain bacteria.
Are doctors worried about increased spread in the US?
Pettigrew said it's all relative in terms of determining a concern for the spread of donovanosis in the country.
"Donovanosis is currently very rare in the U.S. as well but there are sporadic cases," she said. "However, other sexually transmitted infections are on the rise in the US."
Pettigrew said that "theoretically," the bacteria klebsiella granulomatis could increase in the U.S. since the risk factors (for) unprotected sex are on the rise for other bacterial STIs.
"The worst thing we can do is shame people – then they don’t talk to their partners, they don’t get diagnosed, and they don’t get treated. These are conditions that allow bacterial STIs to spread. Awareness on the part of health care providers is also important- medical providers may find it difficult to identify donovanosis because it is rare and they may lack experience with this infection."
What are the leading STIs and STDs in America?
According to the CDC, there were 2,554,908 cases of sexually transmitted diseases or infections in the U.S. in 2019.
Chlamydia is the most commonly reported STD, with over 1.8 million cases reported in 2019. Young women (ages 15-24) account for 43% of reported cases and face the most severe consequences of an undiagnosed infection.
Gonorrhea was the second most prevalent with 616,392 cases in '19, coming out to 188 per 100,000 people.
A sexually transmitted infection is different than a sexually transmitted disease (STD) in that most STDs start as an STI. Not all diseases begin with infections, although many do.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Flesh eating’ STI donovanosis becoming more common in the UK