Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are sounding the alarm about antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, which threatens to pose a “major public health challenge” in the coming years. Over the last three decades, this common sexually transmitted infection has increasingly failed to respond to the drugs used to treat it — which means the thousands of Americans infected with gonorrhea every year are running out of options.
Gonorrhea is one of the most common STDs in the United States, with about 820,000 cases diagnosed each year. But this disease is “remarkably adept” at adapting to antibiotics, according to federal health officials. During the 1990s and early 2000s, gonorrhea developed resistance to several common drugs that used to be able to treat it.
Unsurprisingly, drug resistance allows the disease to spread faster. The CDC’s analysis — which focused on a strain of gonorrhea that doesn’t respond to ciprofloxacin, the primary antibiotic that the agency used to recommend for it — found that gonorrhea cases rose in eight U.S. cities between 1991 and 2006. Researchers concluded that once ten percent of gonorrhea cases are resistant to the recommended treatment, there’s a seven percent increase in overall gonorrhea infections.
Now, a cocktail of two antibiotics is the last effective treatment we have against the STD. But there are already some signs that those last-resort antibiotics may not be able to hang on for long. Last year, researchers in Canada found that nearly seven percent of patients at a Toronto clinic were infected with a form of the disease that didn’t respond to any drugs at all. As the number of available treatments dwindles, that emerging resistance “could have even more substantial health and economic consequences,” the CDC researchers write.
Untreated gonorrhea can cause lasting health issues in both women and men. It puts women at risk for pelvic inflammatory disease, which can lead to ectopic pregnancies or infertility. In rare cases, it can also lead to infertility in men. Both genders are more at risk for contracting HIV if their gonorrhea goes untreated.
The National Coalition of STD Directors believes it could be a matter of just another year or two before untreatable gonorrhea spreads throughout the country.
The CDC is trying its best to stay on top of the issue. In 2007, the agency stopped recommending ciprofloxicin to treat gonorrhea, after more than 13 percent of patient samples displayed resistance to that drug. Since then, the agency has updated its guidelines two more times as gonorrhea has continued to evolve. Last summer, CDC officials partnered with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to try to develop two new treatments for the STD.
But gonorrhea isn’t the only example of an area where antibiotic treatments are losing their effectiveness. Drug-resistant superbugs pose a huge public health threat that can affect everything from U.S. hospitals to foodborne illnesses. Global health officials are also concerned about emerging antibiotic resistance in potentially deadly diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, and whooping cough.