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Mycoplasma genitalium is the STD you've never heard of, because the bacterium wasn't previously known to be sexually transmitted. According to a new study, hundreds of thousands of UK residents are already infected.

If anyone challenged you to come up with a list of sexually transmitted diseases, which ones would you call out? You've almost certainly heard of HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, HPV, herpes, syphilis, and Hepatitis B. Perhaps a few others, like trichomoniasis, also spring to mind. Unless you have been diagnosed with this particular infection, however, I'm willing to bet that you've never even heard of Mycoplasma genitalium.

Mycoplasma genitalium what? This STD, a bacterial infection, is also known simply as "MG", and it may not remain little known for very much longer, as a new UK study has just found that hundreds of thousands of British residents are infected. 

Around one percent of Britons aged between 16 and 44 who said they have had at least one sexual partner is now estimated to have MG, which — though discovered in 1981 — was not initially known to be passed on through sex. 

Those who reported having four or more sexual partners in the previous 12 months were discovered to be at much greater risk of MG. That is, 5.2 percent of 16 to 44 year old men and 3.1 percent of women in the same age group who fall into this category are estimated to be infected.

The study was published in the International Journal of Epidemiology. Public Health England consultant clinical epidemiologist Nigel Field, who worked on the study, said: "The study adds to the accumulating evidence base that MG causes infection in some men and women, and the study found that women with MG were more likely to report bleeding after sexual activity." 

He added that since more than half of women and over 90 percent of men who tested positive for MG didn't have any symptoms at all, it is possible that the bacterium doesn't make everyone infected with it ill. However, scientists believe that MG is associated with Pelvic Inflammatory Disease, which is in turn linked to both ectopic pregnancy and infertility. In those who do display symptoms, vaginal bleeding and urinary inflammation are common. 

MG testing isn't yet widely available in the UK, but Field shared that Public Health England has now set up a monitoring system to keep tabs on the "diagnoses of MG from any clinics undertaking testing", and will "gather public health data on MG to inform policy on infection control". 

Monitoring new cases of MG and their consequences is important work, especially in light of the fact that preventative steps and screening policies have not yet been developed, nor is it clear exactly what MG does to the body at this point. Being able to routinely identify cases of Mycoplasma genitalium even in people who don't have symptoms at sexual health clinics would help prevent the further spread of the infection among the population. 

Meanwhile, what can you do to reduce your risk of becoming infected with MG? Condoms remain the only way to actively prevent sexually transmitted diseases of any kind. In the case of MG, you can't be sure you and your partner don't have it even if you were both previously tested for STDs — since MG isn't routinely tested for. If you suffer from the symptoms mentioned above and are worried, however, approaching your doctor for testing may be an option for you.

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