The ongoing arms race between germs and humans is seeing more and more cases of drug-resistant gonorrhea springing up across the world, according to international health agencies.
This grim sign of our times doesn’t just mean gonorrhea is becoming much harder to treat, it could also mean that this common STD will someday become incurable, at least with our current arsenal of drugs.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has announced that recent months have seen a rise in the first global reports of “extensively drug-resistant” gonorrhea, with three new documented cases in Europe and Australia between February and March. The Australian Government's Department of Health released a similar statement last month, detailing two cases found in Queensland and Western Australia.
You may remember the recent case of a man in the UK who developed the “world’s worst” case of super gonorrhea after having sex with a woman in Southeast Asia. He eventually responded to a lesser-used type of antibiotic, however, his story appears to be the tip of the iceberg.
Much like the guy from the UK, at least one of the Australian patients acquired the infection in Southeast Asia. Although there are no official figures, the problem is particularly prevalent in certain corners of Asia. A recent study found that up to 19 percent of gonorrhea strains in China are now resistant to standard antibiotics.
Gonorrhea, one of the most common sexually transmitted infections after chlamydia, can be contracted by unprotected vaginal, oral, and anal sex, or sharing sex toys. Around 10 percent of men and 50 percent of women remain asymptomatic, but many people experience an unpleasant green or yellow discharge and pain while urinating. If left untreated it can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease in women and infertility in both sexes.
Typically, doctors treated this bacterial infection with two widely used antibiotics, azithromycin and ceftriaxone. However, it appears that more and more strains of the bacteria have evolved a resistance to these drugs. Lesser-used antibiotics are proving useful as a last-ditch treatment, but their days are numbered.
The issue of “super gonorrhea” points to a much bigger threat to humans: the specter of drug-resistant superbugs. For over 70 years, humans have heavily relied on antibiotics and antimicrobial agents to fight bacterial infections. Due to this widespread overuse, many infectious organisms have adapted and evolved resistance to the drugs, making them less effective.
By 2050, these infections could kill over 10 million people each year worldwide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note at least 18 drug-resistant threats to the US. One of the top 3 most urgent threats is Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the bacteria responsible for gonorrhea.
It all sounds a bit worrying, but it’s worth remembering that gonorrhea is fairly easy to prevent: practice safe sex and wear a condom.