June 6, 2012

Drug-Resistant Gonorrhea Going Global

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com

The United Nations health agency said on Wednesday that drug-resistant strains of gonorrhea have spread to countries through out the world.

The U.N. said millions of patients may run out of treatment options unless doctors are able to catch and treat the drug-resistant strains.

Last year, scientists reported finding a "superbug" strain of gonorrhea in Japan in 2008 that was resistant to antibiotics. Those scientists warned that it could transform gonorrhea into a global threat.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said countries including Australia, France, Norway, Sweden and Britain are reporting cases of drug-resistant gonorrhea.

"Gonorrhoea is becoming a major public health challenge," Manjula Lusti-Narasimhan, from the WHO's department of reproductive health and research, said in a statement.

Lusti-Narasimhan said over 106 million people are newly infected with the sexually transmitted disease every year.

"The organism is what we term a superbug - it has developed resistance to virtually every class of antibiotics that exists," she told a briefing in Geneva. "If gonococcal infections become untreatable, the health implications are significant."

Gonorrhea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy, stillbirths, severe eye infections in babies, and infertility in both men and women if left untreated.

The disease is one of the most common STDs in the world and is most prevalent in south and southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that the number of gonorrhea cases in the U.S. is at about 700,000 a year.

The emergence of the drug-resistant strain is caused by unregulated access to and overuse of antibiotics.

Experts say an added problem with gonorrhea is that its strains tend to retain their genetic resistance to previous antibiotics even after their use.

The WHO said it is not clear how far or wide drug resistance in gonorrhea has spread.

"Without adequate surveillance we won't know the extent of resistance...and without research into new antimicrobial agents there could soon be no effective treatment for patients," Lusti-Narasimhan said at the briefing.

Francis Ndowa, formerly the WHO's lead specialist for sexually transmitted infections, said the sexually transmitted disease has not only adapted to be drug-resistant, but has become less painful, thus going more undetected.

"They used to say that if you have urethral gonorrhoea you go to the toilet to pass urine, it would be like passing razor blades. It was that painful," Ndowa said at the briefing. "Now people with gonorrhoea sometimes...only notice the discharge if they look when they pass urine, it's not that painful anymore."

Experts say the best way to reduce the risk of creating an even more drug-resistant disease is to treat gonorrhea with a combination of two or more types of antibiotics at the same time. This technique is used to treat other infections like tuberculosis to help keep them from developing drug-resistant strains as well.

The WHO said early detection and prompt treating is essential to control sexually transmitted infections.