Drug-Resistant Gonorrhea Spreading Worldwide, WHO Warns

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Gonorrhea bacterium

Officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) are urging governments and doctors to increase surveillance of potentially untreatable strains of drug-resistant gonorrhea and are calling for more vigilance on the proper treatment of the disease with antibiotics.

The widely spreading “superbug” strains of the sexually transmitted infection are resistant to cephalosporin antibiotics, normally the last line of defense against gonorrhea. Last year scientists reported finding a strain of gonorrhea in Japan in 2008 that was resistant to all recommended antibiotics; at the time, the researchers warned that it could turn the disease into a serious global health issue.

Now, WHO reports that drug-resistant strains are popping up in many more countries, including Australia, France, Norway, Sweden and the U.K. Unless doctors catch and treat cases earlier, millions of people may run out of treatment options.

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“This organism has basically been developing resistance against every medication we’ve thrown at it,” Dr. Manjula Lusti-Narasimhan, a scientist in the WHO’s department of sexually transmitted diseases, told the Associated Press. “In a couple of years it will have become resistant to every treatment option we have available now.”

After chlamydia, gonorrhea is the most commonly sexually transmitted disease in the world, infecting more than 106 million people each year. In the U.S. alone, more than 700,000 people are estimated to become infected with gonorrhea each year, and less than half of these cases are reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2010, 309,341 cases of gonorrhea were reported to the CDC.

In an official WHO statement, Lusti-Narasimhan warned that without adequate surveillance, the true extent of the spread of drug-resistant gonorrhea remains unknown, and without new research into new antimicrobial agents, there could soon be no effective treatment left for those infected.

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Untreated, the bacterial infection can cause:

  • infection of the urethra, cervix and rectum
  • infertility in both men and women
  • a significantly increased risk of HIV infection and transmission
  • ectopic pregnancy, spontaneous abortion, stillbirth and premature birth
  • severe eye infections that can lead to blindness, which occur in 30% to 50% of babies born to women with untreated gonorrhoea

Gonorrhea has already developed resistance to most common antibiotic treatments such as penicillin, tetracyclines and quinolones, driven by the improper or overuse of these medications. Over-the-counter availability of low-potency antibiotics in some Asian countries may also help explain why resistance is increasing.

Gonorrhea bacteria are also remarkably adaptable, quickly mutating and spreading its ability to resist antibiotics. Gonorrhea also tends to retain genetic resistance to previous antibiotics even after they are discontinued, the WHO says.

To prevent spread, better sex education is needed, along with increased monitoring and research into new treatments. Using condoms during sex is one of the most effective ways ti prevent infection. “We’re not going to be able to get rid of it completely,” Lusti-Narasimhan told the AP. “But we can limit the spread.”

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