The transmission dynamics of gonorrhoea: modelling the reported behaviour of infected patients from Newark, New Jersey

Geoff. P. Garnett, Kristen J. Mertz, Lyn Finelli, William C. Levine, Michael E. St Louis

Abstract

A survey of the sexual behaviour of gonorrhoea patients in Newark was undertaken to evaluate parameters within a model of gonorrhoea transmission. Modelling work aimed to explain observed epidemiological patterns and to explore the potential impact of interventions. Reported behaviours, along with values derived from the literature, were used within a standard deterministic model of gonorrhoea transmission, where the population was stratified according to sex and rates of sex–partner change. The behaviours reported, particularly among women, are insufficient by themselves to explain the continued existence of gonorrhoea within the population. The majority of symptomatic patients seek treatment within a few days, and report that they do not have unprotected sex while symptomatic. The proportion of patients with low numbers of sex partners suggests that sexual mixing between people categorized according to sexual behaviour is near random. To explain the persistence of gonorrhoea, there must be some patients who, when infected, do not seek care in public clinics. In addition, gonorrhoea incidence in the model is sensitive to change, such that very small reductions in risk behaviour could lead to its elimination. This does not accord with the observed failure of many interventions to eliminate infection, suggesting that the modelled infection is too sensitive to change. The model, which has been influential in gonorrhoea epidemiology, is not consistent with the observed epidemiology of gonorrhoea in populations. Alternative models need to explore the observed stability of gonorrhoea before robust modelling conclusions can be drawn on how best to control infection. However, the current results do highlight the potential importance of asymptomatic infections and infections in those who are diseased and do not attend public health services. Screening and contact–tracing to identify asymptomatic infections in both men and women will be more effective in reaching those who maintain the infection within the community rather than simply treating symptomatic cases.