An 11-year-old girl from Austria reportedly was infected with gonorrhea after taking a dip in a thermal pool during a vacation to Italy.
Her family — including her mom, dad and older sister — had been swimming at the volcanic lake Specchio di Venere, or “Mirror of Venus,” on the island of Pantelleria, off the coast of Sicily. Two days later, she began to experience the painful burning sensation that is indicative of the usually sexually transmitted disease.
Doctors believe that the moderately warm temperature of the water served as a breeding ground for the infection, according to a new study published in the Journal of Medical Case Reports.
The family separated at one point during their swim, with her and her father wading into one 20-centimeter-deep pool — there are several adjoining hot springs at the lake — while her mom and older sister went to another, according to the report.
The girl was initially treated with an over-the-counter anti-fungal cream as the family continued their vacation, having mistaken her discomfort for some sort of mycosis.
However, her symptoms had not completely subsided by the time she returned to Austria about two weeks later, which prompted her parents to make an appointment with their family doctor.
A swab test indicated she had caught the disease; meanwhile, test results for all three other family members turned up negative. The girl also insisted that sex was not involved.
Considering the timing of her symptoms, followup exams with the family and “no evidence” of sexual intercourse, doctors concluded that the girl most likely became infected during her soak in the pool at Pantelleria.
She was given a standard antibiotic treatment for gonorrhea, including a shot and a course of tablets, and has since fully recovered from the embarrassing and frightening ordeal.
“Her first reaction was fear that her new classmates might hear about this infection,” the report revealed. “The stress of adjusting to a new school coupled with the infection led to crying and fatigue, particularly just before treatment, as she was very afraid of the infusion.”
Doctors Felicity Goodyear-Smith of the University of Aukland, New Zealand, and Robert Schabetsberger of the University of Salzburg, Austria, described the favorable infection conditions in the “Mirror of Venus” hot springs as a slightly acidic, “almost stagnant” pool, with heat elevated to near body temperature — all of which could have helped Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the bacteria that causes “the clap,” to survive.
Most bacteria thrive in mild temps, between 41 and 135 degrees Fahrenheit, and the human body temperature of roughly 98.6 degrees fits comfortably within the range.
“There needs to be public understanding that people bathing in heavily frequented shallow thermal pools risk exposure to pathogens through inoculation by other bathers,” the researchers warned. “A sign should make visitors aware of strict hygiene before entering the pools,” and also suggested using antibacterial soap at an easily accessible shower before and after taking a dip would help to prevent contamination at the springs.
That’s especially important for young girls, who are more susceptible to infection due to their pH balance being lower than that of adult women, a factor that increases the risk of gonorrhea.
Previous reports have seen children become infected via a toilet seat, as well as sharing a shower towel with an infected family member, the doctors noted.
And, while they were “almost certain” sex was not involved in this instance, most cases of young girls who test positive for STIs should be investigated to the extent that sexual abuse can be ruled out.