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Here’s Why That “Flesh-Eating STD” Is Less Scary Than It Sounds

Donovanosis can cause genital ulcers and tissue damage, but it’s rare in the US and may not be so “flesh-eating” after all.

Posted on August 24, 2018, at 5:58 p.m. ET

A sexually transmitted disease called donovanosis is getting a lot of attention after a young woman in England supposedly contracted the infection.

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If you’ve been on the internet this week, you might have read about a terrifying-sounding STD that’s “flesh-eating” and can cause genitals to “rot” away. Let’s face it: “flesh-eating” and “STD” are two words you probably never want to hear in the same sentence. So what is this disease and do you actually need to be concerned?

The infection, donovanosis, can cause ulcers and disfiguring scars on the genitals if left untreated, experts told BuzzFeed News, but it’s rare and not truly what most doctors would consider “flesh-eating.”

The stories got started when the Liverpool Echo reported that the online pharmacy Chemist-4-U.com had discovered that the infection was diagnosed in a woman between the ages of 15 and 22 in Southport, a town in Northwest England. It is still unclear whether the case was confirmed by laboratory testing or reported to local health authorities. Chemist 4 U did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

When asked about the case, a spokesperson from Public Health England did send us this statement. “Donovanosis primarily occurs in tropical countries or regions of the Americas, Southern Africa and Oceania. It is very rarely diagnosed and reported in the UK.”

The STD is found in some countries, but is rare in the US.

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There are fewer than 100 reported cases of donovanosis each year in the US. By contrast, there were 1.59 million cases of chlamydia reported in the country in 2016.

Most cases of donovanosis in the US are believed to be contracted internationally by travelers and brought back to the US. The disease is common in areas such as India, Papua New Guinea, Guyana, Brazil, central Australia, and southern Africa, according to the NLM.

“In other words, it’s not an infection the average person will come across in the US,” a spokesperson for the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) told BuzzFeed News. And if you are traveling to an area where donovanosis is common, you can take steps to protect yourself and your future sexual partners.

While untreated donovanosis can cause genital ulcers that spread and damage tissue, it isn’t necessarily “flesh-eating” as we know the term.

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Donovanosis, also known as granuloma inguinale, is an infection caused by the bacterium Klebsiella granulomatis. It’s characterized by genital ulcers, or sores, so it’s in the same category as syphilis and herpes, the ASHA spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. It spreads through unprotected vaginal or anal intercourse and, rarely, through oral sex.

These ulcers begin as small red bumps and they are typically painless, but bleed easily if injured, according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM). Symptoms appear between 1 and 12 weeks after infection, and early-stage donovanosis may be confused for chancroid, another ulcer-causing STD. If left untreated, the ulcers can worsen and cause permanent swelling and scarring.

The good news? It is treatable — typically with antibiotics, such as azithromycin and doxycycline, which are given for several weeks or until the ulcers have healed, according to the NLM. However, it’s possible to relapse, and ulcers can reappear in some people years later, so follow-up exams are important.

But wait...what about the “flesh-eating” part?

Well, the lesions associated with this infection can spread and damage or destroy surrounding genital tissue — so yes, it can cause tissue death. This also happens with many other bacterial infections when they go untreated. And donovanosis is not the same as necrotizing fasciitis, or what we commonly know as flesh-eating disease, which is a severe infection often associated with Streptococcus A bacteria that destroys soft tissue and causes limb loss or death.

“Using the term ‘flesh eating’ to describe this ... definitely an attention grabber. Not entirely accurate,” the ASHA spokesperson said.

There’s no need to panic — but you should still practice safe sex and get tested to reduce your risk of getting STDs.

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Yes, donovanosis can cause long-term damage if left untreated. Chlamydia and gonorrhea, which are far more common infections, can also cause long-term damage (like infertility) if left untreated, the ASHA spokesperson points out.

To avoid sexually transmitted infections, you should use condoms, get tested regularly, and receive treatment for any STD as early as possible.

If you’ve had unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex, you have a new sexual partner or multiple partners, or you think you might’ve been exposed to an STD, talk to your doctor about getting tested. You should also get tested if you have any symptoms, but many STDs are asymptomatic, so it’s important to get routine screenings even when you feel fine.

And if you notice an ulcer or sore on your genitals, go get it checked out by a health care provider — don’t try to self-diagnose. In the meantime, don’t panic and enjoy (safe) sex.

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