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Antibiotic Resistance to Gonorrhea Growing

  • Lisa Schlein

Indonesian patients listen to a doctor during a medical consultation about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) at a clinic in Denpasar on the resort island of Bali on December 10, 2010 (file photo).
GENEVA - The World Health Organization (WHO) warns antibiotic resistance to gonorrhea is growing, and the world is running out of treatment for this sexually transmitted disease. The U.N. agency is calling for greater vigilance on the correct use of antibiotics and more research into alternative treatment options.

The World Health Organization reports an estimated 106 million people are infected with gonorrhea every year. It warns there are few treatment options available for these infections.

A scientist at WHO's Department of Sexually Transmitted Diseases, Manjula Lusti-Narasimhan, says there will be considerable health consequences if gonorrhea becomes untreatable.

"For men and women of reproductive age, they could become infertile," said Lusti-Narasimhan. "For women who are pregnant and they could have ectopic pregnancies or spontaneous abortions that could increase maternal deaths. And for infants born to these women with untreated gonorrhea, we already know that over half of them develop severe eye infections and many of these could lead to blindness."

Gonorrhea is one of four major curable sexually transmitted infections. The so-called superbug that causes gonococcal infections is an organism that has developed resistance to virtually every class of antibiotics that exists.

WHO says antimicrobial resistance is caused by the unrestricted access to antimicrobials, overuse and poor quality of antibiotics, as well as natural genetic mutations within disease organisms. In addition, scientists note gonorrhea strains tend to retain the memory to previous resistance to antibiotics, even after their use has been discontinued.

WHO says the extent of this resistance worldwide is not known because of a lack of reliable data in many countries and insufficient research. But it notes cases of resistance to treatment are already being reported in several countries, including Australia, France, Japan, Norway, Sweden and Britain.

Dr. Lusti-Marasimhan considers this the tip of the iceberg. She says there are no new therapeutic options. Nothing is happening right now in the way of research into new drug treatments for gonorrhea.

"We have no plan-B right now," said Lusti-Marasimhan. "There has been this general complacency that has set in because so far, you pop a pill, you get cured, end of story. And, we are no longer there. We are in a stage right now where in so many places this organism is rapidly developing resistance. We do need to start looking into the research... the problem is larger than the options that we are having right now."

The World Health Organization is releasing a global action plan that calls for increased monitoring and reporting of resistant strains, as well as better prevention, diagnosis and control of gonococcal infections.

Health officials say gonorrhea can be prevented through safer sexual intercourse. They say early detection and prompt treatment, including of sexual partners, is essential to control sexually transmitted infections.