In what has proven to be both a cautionary tale, and a microcosm of the wider public health crisis posed by antibiotic resistance, it’s being reported that a man in the UK has contracted the world’s worst case of super-gonorrhea.
According to BBC News, the man – who has a regular partner in the UK – contracted the drug-resistant infection through a sexual encounter with a woman in South East Asia earlier this year. He was given a range of commonly used antibiotics, as well as a combination of azithromycin and ceftriaxone which, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the last recommended effective treatment option for uncomplicated gonorrhea.
It didn’t work, and, according to Public Health England, the European Centres for Disease Control and the World Health Organization (WHO), this is the first ever case wherein the superbug displayed such high-level resistance to these treatments.
It’s been suggested that one more antibiotic could kill it off, but if it doesn’t, there are essentially no options left. Fortunately, according to the Evening Standard, the man's UK partner has tested negative for the infection, but officials are worried other partners, if they exist, may test positive.
Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection commonly contracted by engaging in unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex, or sharing sex toys. Common symptoms include colorful discharges, pain while urinating and bleeding between periods – but 1 in 10 men and around half of women, according to the NHS, are asymptomatic.
In the long-term, it can lead to inflammation of the pelvic region in women, and possibly infertility. It’s normally treated with a course of antibiotics, but the appearance of so-called “super-gonorrhea” has concerned health authorities.
The Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacterium has progressively developed antibiotic resistance over time, to the point where the WHO now consider it to be a “high priority” pathogen requiring the development of new antibiotics and widespread public health education and prevention efforts.
It’s part of the overall global rise in antibiotic resistance, something that the WHO has described as “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.” It’s arguably the major facet of the larger umbrella of antimicrobial resistance, which describes an “ever-increasing range of infections” caused by not just bacteria, but viruses, fungi, and parasites too.
The appearance of this man’s record-breaking resistant super-gonorrhea, then, is part of a deeply worrying trend, one in which both our prevention and treatment efforts are falling short.
The overarching theme here may be to stop the overuse of antibiotics in healthcare and agriculture, and invest heavily in related R&D. On a personal level, however, the moral of this particular modern fable is clear: use a condom, don’t get hyper-gonorrhea.