No one who has ever been through high school sex education can forget the horror of the unit on sexually transmitted diseases, especially if pictures were involved. Gonorrhea, known scientifically as Neisseria gonorrhoeae and more colloquially “the clap,” has long been one of the most ubiquitous STDs—not to mention one of the grossest. It’s got everything in most people’s morning-after nightmares: pus, weird colored discharge and ulcers in extremely private places. And now, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the disease is evolving into a new form resistant to antibiotics that many have dubbed “super-gonorrhea.”
Maybe it sounds like the world’s worst supervillain, but super-gonorrhea is no joke. You might think that such a prevalent disease would have a reliable treatment routine—but you would be wrong. Gonorrhea has a verifiable history of developing resistances to antibiotics; penicillin was used to treat it until 1976, when the drug simply lost its effectiveness. CDC replaced penicillin with a group of drugs called ciproflaxins, but in 2007, it was forced to acknowledge that those too, were failing significantly. As of now, cephalosporins are the only remaining line of defense against gonorrhea. This latest superstrain has developed resistances against one half of the two-drug combination typically used to fight it.
Needless to say, this is some seriously bad news, and not just because of the stigma surrounding STDs. If untreated, gonorrhea can lead to serious health issues, including pelvic inflammatory disease, dangerous ectopic pregnancies, stillbirth or infertility. It is also possible for an infected mother to pass the disease on to her child during childbirth, which could cause severe complications with the newborn. CDC currently classifies antibiotic resistant diseases as an “urgent threat” in North America. “For organism after organism, we’re seeing this steady increase in resistance rates,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, CDC’s director. “We don’t have new drugs coming out of the pipeline.” He noted that the prognosis for future drugs’ effectiveness is grim. “If and when we do get new drugs, we’ll lose those too.”
It sounds bad, and it is. The presence of resistant disease highlights the urgent need for newer, more effective antibiotics, but the formulation of these drugs is slowed by the expense of pharmaceutical development programs. Additionally, gonorrhea itself is asymptomatic in many cases until the later stages of the infection, facilitating spread among patients who do not realize that they are afflicted.
What can we do right now to stop the gonorrhea superbug? Prevention is critical; medical professionals strongly recommend the use of condoms during sex, as well as regular STD testing, particularly for those who have had gonorrhea in the past or engage in sex with multiple partners.
Dr. Frieden is optimistic. “It’s not too late. There are things we can do that stop the spread of drug resistance.” That’s good to hear—we just really hope he’s right.