Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the bacterium that gangs up on your body to give it gonorrhea. Image: CDC
Gonorrhea is that guy with the funny name who’s always up to something new and mischievous. Last year, the New England Journal of Medicine declared that it’s “time to sound the alarm” in response to emerging strains of gonorrhea that are increasingly resistant to antibiotics. Then, earlier this year, the medical journal JAMA reported the first North American sightings of gonorrhea that failed treatment with cefixime, one of the last drugs we have in our anti-gonorrhea arsenal. It’s a great time to be a gonococcus — the type of bacteria that causes gonorrhea — but the humans they infect probably don’t see it that way.
Last month, this bad boy rose to the top of the Most Wanted list when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention proclaimed antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea an “urgent threat” — the highest threat level, which gonococci share with only two other bacteria types. To give you some context, the much more famous superbug MRSA was categorized as a “serious” threat, one notch below “urgent.”
Antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is an “urgent” threat; meanwhile, researchers develop a gonorrhea vaccine that works — on mice.
Antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is especially insidious for two reasons. One, gonorrhea often doesn’t have symptoms, which allows it to jump from one sexual partner to another, the hosts often none the wiser. Two, unless health care providers actually test the bug’s DNA, they have no way of knowing whether or not they’re dealing with a drug-resistant strain. This opens up the possibility for treatment failure — and for the antibiotic-resistant bacteria to be further propagated into the community.
The CDC estimates that the United States sees 246,000 cases of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea infections annually — that’s about 30 percent of all gonorrhea infections in the country. For now, we seem to be able to cure them with higher doses or different combinations of drugs. So why does antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea deserve the “urgent” designation? While gonorrhea isn’t associated with a body count — unlike other drug-resistant pathogens, which collectively kill at least 23,000 Americans a year — it can have terrible consequences. Gonorrhea can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) when it advances up the female reproductive tract, and epididymitis when it invades the male reproductive tract; both conditions can cause infertility. Also, gonorrhea infections make us more vulnerable to HIV. The CDC estimates that if the most resistant gonorrhea strain gains ground over the next decade, the country could see an additional 75,000 cases of PID, 15,000 cases of epididymitis, and 222 HIV infections, costing us $235 million. Continue reading