A super-resistant strain of gonorrhea has been reported in the United Kingdom following warnings from global public health officials that the common sexually transmitted disease is becoming more difficult to treat.
Health officials in England said it is the first time that a case of gonorrhea could not be treated successfully with antibiotics that are commonly used to cure it.
Earlier this year, a man, who was not named, sought treatment there for symptoms that he developed about a month after he had sexual contact with a woman in Southeast Asia, according to a case report from Public Health England. The bacterial infection was treated with two antibiotics, azithromycin and ceftriaxone, but subsequent tests still came back positive for the disease, the officials said.
“This is the first time a case has displayed such high-level resistance to both of these drugs and to most other commonly used antibiotics,” Gwenda Hughes, who leads the sexually transmitted infection section at Public Health England, said Wednesday in a statement.
Gonorrhea, which is caused by the bacterium, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases around the world.
Each year, there are an estimated 78 million cases across the globe — about 820,000 of which are reported in the United States, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
But public health officials said it is becoming more and more resistant to drugs.
Teodora Wi, medical officer of human reproduction at WHO, said in a news release last year that the bacteria that cause gonorrhea are highly intelligent, explaining that “every time we use a new class of antibiotics to treat the infection, the bacteria evolve to resist them.”
It's not certain how the patient in England contracted the super-resistant strain. Although he had contact with a woman in Asia, he also had one female partner in the United Kingdom, according to the recent report from Public Health England. She avoided infection.
Following treatment, a throat swab revealed that the man's infection was still present.
The patient was then treated intravenously with another antibiotic called ertapenem, and preliminary tests show that the medication may be working.
He will be tested again next month.
“We are following up this case to ensure that the infection was effectively treated with other options and the risk of any onward transmission is minimized,” Hughes, with Public Health England, said in the statement. “PHE actively monitors, and acts on, the spread of antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea and potential treatment failures, and has introduced enhanced surveillance to identify and manage resistant strains of infection promptly to help reduce further spread.”
David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, said that the report “is one more confirmation of our greatest fear: drug-resistant gonorrhea spreading around the globe.”
“Here in the U.S. and around the globe, we have to take drug-resistant gonorrhea seriously in order to invest in finding new cures and preventing infections,” he said, according to CNN. “Working together, funding must be radically increased to combat this and other life-threatening STDs.”
Oftentimes, there are no signs or symptoms associated with gonorrhea but, when symptoms do occur, they can include pain while urinating, abnormal discharge from the genitals and, with women, pain during sexual intercourse, among other things, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Medical experts warn that when the condition is not treated, it can sometimes lead to infertility in both men and women, other infections throughout the body, as well as an increased risk of HIV/AIDS.
The Mayo Clinic recommends that people and their sexual partners use prophylactics and undergo regular STD screenings to monitor for infections.
“It is better to avoid getting or passing on gonorrhea in the first place,” Hughes said, “and everyone can significantly reduce their risk by using condoms consistently and correctly with all new and casual partners
Lindsey Bever is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post, covering national news with an emphasis on health. She was previously a reporter at the Dallas Morning News.