There are growing concerns about an outbreak of a “super” highly drug-resistant strain of gonorrhea spreading across the north of England, prompting a nationwide alert. The strain has been found to be unaffected by the drug azithromycin, which is normally used in conjunction with another antibiotic to treat the disease, caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae.
So far there have been 15 reported cases detected, according to the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV at Public Health England (PHE). In a statement the association said it is “concerned that the effectiveness of current front-line dual therapy for gonorrhoea will be threatened if this resistant strain continues to spread unchecked.”
The strain was first detected in March in the northern city of Leeds, where the majority of the cases have so far been reported. But there are increasing fears of it spreading. Three nearby towns have already found infections, and some of those patients who have tested positive for N. gonorrhoeae have reported sexual partners from across England.
“It doesn't sound like an awful lot of people, but the implication is there's a lot more of this strain out there and we need to stamp it out as quickly as possible,” Peter Greenhouse, a sexual health consultant based in Bristol, U.K., told BBC News. “If this becomes the predominant strain in the U.K. we're in big trouble, so we have to be really meticulous in making sure each of these individuals has all their contacts traced and treated.”
Gonorrhea, also known as "the clap," is the second most common sexually transmitted infection in the England, after Chlamydia, with 35,000 cases reported last year, a 19% rise from the year before. Predominantly affecting men and women of all sexualities under the age of 25, the symptoms can include burning while urinating, thick green or yellow discharge from the vagina or penis and, in women, bleeding between periods, although it can also be asymptomatic. Left untreated it can cause infertility in both men and women.
There is a growing threat worldwide that gonorrhea is becoming more and more resistant to current therapies, and might become untreatable. Eight years ago the Center for Disease Control in the United States recommended that doctors stop using drugs called fluoroquinolones to treat infections, but now there is a worrying trend of reduced efficacy in last remaining class of drugs, called cephalosporins, too. In 2011, there was an “alarming” case reported from Japan of a strain that was resistant to all cephalosporin-class antibiotics.