It is sometimes impossible to treat gonorrhea because of growing antibiotic resistance across the globe, according to new data from the World Health Organization.
In looking at the sexually-transmitted infection in 77 countries, WHO found that gonorrhea was becoming much more difficult to treat. Each year, 78 million people are infected worldwide.
“The bacteria that cause gonorrhea are particularly smart,” said Dr. Teodora Wi of WHO. “Every time we use a new class of antibiotics to treat the infection, the bacteria evolve to resist them.”
Such resistance, including complete immunity to antibiotic treatment, was found in high-income countries that have better public health infrastructure and monitoring of disease.
“These cases may just be the tip of the iceberg, since systems to diagnose and report untreatable infections are lacking in lower-income countries where gonorrhea is actually more common,” Wi said.
Gonorrhea is common among people aged 15 to 24 years and causes infections in the genitals, rectum and throat. There are 800,000 new infections in the U.S. each year, but because many people don’t have symptoms fewer than half of those cases are detected and reported.
Women are more susceptible to complications from gonorrhea, which include infertility, ectopic pregnancy and increased risk of HIV. Its spread can be prevented by proper condom use, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that the only way to avoid it completely is not to have vaginal, anal or oral sex. Pregnant women can spread the infection to their child.
The CDC called the STD’s resistance to antibiotics “an urgent public health issue.” The emergence of drug-resistant strains complicates the ability to treat it effectively, leaving “few antibiotic options left that are simple, well-studied, well-tolerated and highly effective.” Gonorrhea has developed resistance to nearly all antibiotics used to treat it, including penicillin, sulfanilamides, tetracycline and floroquinolones like ciprofloaxin.
“We are currently down to one last effective class of antibiotics, cephalosporins, to treat this common infection,” the CDC said. “This is an urgent public health threat because gonorrhea control in the United States largely relies on effective antibiotic therapy.”
According to WHO, there are only three new drugs in clinical development to treat gonorrhea. The health organization warned that there’s little incentive for commercial pharmaceutical companies to develop new drugs because people only take them for a short amount of time. Drug resistance also ensures that constant development is needed to keep the infection at bay.
WHO said a cheap, quick, point-of-care diagnostic test for gonorrhea needs to be developed so people can find out right away if they have it. A vaccine should also be developed, WHO said.