Donovanosis: What is the rare ‘flesh-eating’ sexually transmitted infection?

·2 min read
A sexual health doctor advises a young man (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
A sexual health doctor advises a young man (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A rare sexually transmitted infection that causes genital ulcers and destroys genital tissue may be becoming more common in the UK, a doctor has warned.

Last week, Dr Shree Datta, from London’s MyHealthCare Clinic told Birmingham Live that “donovanosis – which was previously thought to be restricted to places including India, Brazil and New Guinea – is becoming more common on these shores”.

“As well as the awful symptoms, it’s important people are aware that it’s a known risk factor for the transmission of HIV,” Datta said.

Donovanosis has earned a fearsome reputation, after being dubbed the “flesh-eating disease”.

However, statistics from Public Health England show that the infection is still extremely rare.

In 2017, 26 cases of donovanosis were recorded, an increase from 19 in 2016. This then decreased to 21 cases in 2018, before increasing to 30 infections in 2019.

The latest figures show that there were 18 cases of donovanosis in the last year.

According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), it takes around 50 days, or seven weeks, for symptoms to appear.

But what are the symptoms and why is it a risk factor for the transmission of HIV?

What are the symptoms of donovanosis?

Donovanosis is caused by a bacteria named Klebsiella granulomatis that can destroy genital skin and tissue.

The main symptoms are painless genital ulcers that bleed easily when touched.

According to NICE, the ulcers increase in size if left untreated.

Dr Datta told The Independent: “The early signs are lumps around the genitals or anus that increase in size and take on a beefy-red appearance.

“These can develop into ulcers that, without treatment, can become infected, which can result in pain and an unpleasant smell. It’s more likely to affect men.”

How is donovanosis diagnosed and treated?

According to the British Medical Journal, the infection can be diagnosed by taking a swab of the genital ulcer. Doctors will then study the sample for the presence of the Klebsiella granulomatis bacteria.

The infection is treated using a course of antibiotics that stop the growth of the bacteria, giving the sores time to heal.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, relapse of the ulcers can occur six to 18 months after the course of antibiotics.

If you have any symptoms of donovanosis, make an appointment with your GP.

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