Background: Gonorrhoea is a common infectious disease, poorly controlled despite effective treatments. Tracing chains of transmission is difficult, because sexual partners are commonly difficult or impossible to identify. We assess the use of gonococcal opa-typing in identifying transmission links not revealed through interview.
Methods: Epidemiological data and gonococcal isolates were collected prospectively from patients at two UK clinics in London and Sheffield. Social and epidemiological data were combined with molecular typing of gonococcal isolates by a new methodology based on the polymorphisms of the opa gene.
Findings: In London, interview data and opa-typing on samples from 215 cases showed a diverse population with few links. In Sheffield, interview data identified links between 51 (43%) of 120 cases, whereas opa-typing suggested a more connected population: 95 (79%) of cases had shared profiles. There was a highly significant correlation between the two distributions with epidemiological clusters appearing as a subset of the opa clusters. Two large opa clusters, of 18 and 43 cases, accounted for 50% of local cases of gonorrhoea. Discordance between epidemiological and opa-typing data was observed at highly connected points in the sexual network.
Interpretation: Opa-typing is a more powerful tool for epidemiological investigation of gonorrhoea transmission than earlier methods. Opa-typing can link infections that would otherwise remain unlinked, and may aid interventions to control endemic disease.