science of us

Beware Autumnal Gonorrhea

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Ahh, fall: the changing of the leaves, a spiked hot cider, bundling up in some chic outerwear, and, of course, gonorrhea.

Yes, gonorrhea. It turns out the sexually transmitted infection (STI) thrives in the autumn months, according to a study published last week in PLoS Pathogens. In fact, the researchers found, it seems nearly all infectious diseases tend to wax and wane depending on the time of year. The study used data from 100 previous studies to describe whether 69 diseases (nice) become more prevalent in spring, summer, autumn, or winter. Some were unsurprising – we all know the flu goes around in the winter. But who knew that more cases of salmonella and chicken pox crop up during the spring, and polio, syphilis, tetanus, tuberculosis and more flourish in the summer?

These fluctuations likely happen thanks to a number of factors, but changes in temperature, humidity, and rainfall drive the majority. Some infectious microbes (like the ones that cause genital herpes, for example) survive better in hot, wet conditions, while others do better in the cold, or in drier habitats.

But human behavior, too, drives these infections’ seasonal preferences. A summer filled with flings and sexual adventure might catch up with you come autumn in the form of an STI or two, for example — that could definitely contribute to higher prevalences diseases like gonorrhea, syphilis, and genital herpes. The researchers say that seasonal non-human animal behavior has an impact too. As mosquitos swarm in western-hemisphere summers and eastern-hemisphere rainy seasons, they transmit diseases like malaria and west-nile virus willy-nilly.

“It’s not that we are vulnerable at a particular time of year and healthy at another,” Micaela Martinez, an infectious disease ecologist at Columbia University and a study author told PBS. “We’re restructuring throughout the year. And the identity of the thing we’re vulnerable to changes with the seasons.”

Martinez’s work could be really useful in the future for predicting disease outbreaks and epidemics around the globe. The better we can predict such things, the better we can prevent them with a scheduled batch of vaccines, or gather the necessary tools and resources in time to treat the people affected by them. Plus, as we know, climate change is rapidly warming the Earth, so it’ll be good to be able to predict which diseases we’ll have to deal with more often, and when.

And at least now we know that as we exit this autumnal season of gonorrhea, as snow begins to fall and we hear the faintest ring of jingle bells, that wintry outbreaks of bird flu and bacterial pneumonia will likely be imminent. ‘Tis the season!

Beware Autumnal Gonorrhea