Thanks to antibiotics, the vast majority of sexually transmitted diseases are treatable. Gonorrhea, a bacterial infection that causes 78 million new cases per year (according to the World Health Organization), is one of them — or, historically, it was. But in recent years, doctors have been raising concerns about a rise in antibiotic-resistant cases of gonorrhea appearing in places like Japan.
Now, doctors have found a case of the antibiotic-resistant version in the United Kingdom. The case involves a man who contracted gonorrhea while on a trip to Southeast Asia. When he returned home to the U.K., doctors administered the typical antibiotics used to wipe it out — and found that they weren’t effective. The resistance led some to deem it “super-gonorrhea,” a nod to superbugs, which are infections that prove resistant to antibiotics.
“This is the first time a case has displayed such high-level resistance to both of these drugs and to most other commonly used antibiotics,” Gwenda Hughes, director of Public Health England’s sexually transmitted infection section, told the BBC of the case. “We are following up to ensure that the infection was effectively treated with other options and the risk of any onward transmission is minimized.”
Gonorrhea, which affects close to a half a million Americans each year, can cause a range of uncomfortable symptoms, such as pain while urinating, in both women and men. But in most cases, and for both genders, it causes few or no symptoms. This is problematic, especially for women. If left untreated, the infection can lead to serious complications, such as pelvic inflammatory disease, which can inhibit fertility.
But when caught it time, the condition is 100 percent curable. The typical treatment involves two steps and two different drugs: first, an injection of the antibiotic ceftriaxone, and second, an oral dose of the antibiotic azithromycin. Bruce Y. Lee, MD, an associate professor of international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says that’s the first sign that the infection is a strong one. “Anytime you see more antibiotics being combined to treat something, that shows that there’s an increasing risk to resistance,” Lee tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
Lee, who helps health-care decision makers address issues like superbugs, penned an op-ed in July for Forbes on what he suggested was the impending arrival of super-gonorrhea. The report from the U.K. then, was no surprise — to him or other experts in the field. Indeed, the World Health Organization has been warning about this version of gonorrhea for some time.
For years, doctors have been noting that gonorrhea is getting smarter. “The bacteria that cause gonorrhea are particularly smart,” Teodora Wi, a medical officer in human reproduction for WHO said in July. “Every time we use a new class of antibiotics to treat the infection, the bacteria evolve to resist them.”
Lee echoes her thoughts. “Everyone in the field says this wasn’t an ‘if,’ it was a ‘when,’” he says. “It was just a matter of time. When you see something so highly resistant, it’s not a surprise when it actually occurs.” Although the individual in England will likely recover through the use of more powerful antibiotics, Lee suggests that’s a dangerous path to go down.
“There are still antibiotics that gonorrhea is resistant to, but you’re talking last-line antibiotics. These are like nuclear missiles; they wipe out everything,” says Lee. “You don’t want to use those until there is a life-threatening issue. You can bring out the big guns in this case, but we can’t keep doing that.”
On top of practicing safe sex (which includes safe oral sex) and minimizing unnecessary antibiotic use for other conditions, Lee says the solution lies in additional antibiotic production — something that pharmaceutical companies aren’t exactly anxious to jump on.
“There’s not as high of a profit margin with antibiotics. They don’t tend to be as expensive, and you don’t take them for an extended period of time,” says Lee. “So there needs to be more incentive, perhaps federal funding.” Lee says that if the news that there’s a version of super-gonorrhea being spread around seems alarming — it should.
“The risk we’re running is returning to the pre-antibiotics era, where you don’t have antibiotics that work — and that’s pretty scary,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I don’t think people realize we need to come up with new weapons, and we need to do it now.”