At least three people in the world are infected with totally untreatable “superbug” strains of gonorrhea, which they are likely spreading to others through sex, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Friday.
WHO experts said it was “only a matter of time” before antibiotics for gonorrhea would become useless.
“Gonorrhea is a very smart bug,” said Teodora Wi, a human reproduction specialist at the Geneva-based U.N. health agency. “Every time you introduce a new type of antibiotic to treat it, this bug develops resistance to it.”
78 million infected a year
WHO estimates 78 million people a year get gonorrhea, a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that can infect the genitals, rectum and throat.
The infection, which in many cases has no symptoms on its own, can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy and infertility, as well as increasing the risk of getting HIV.
By phone, Wi said studies had documented three cases: one each in Japan, France and Spain, of patients with gonorrhea that does not respond to antibiotics.
“These are cases that can infect others. It can be transmitted,” she told reporters. “And 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.”
A WHO monitoring program showed that from 2009 to 2014 there was widespread resistance to antibiotics ciprofloxacin, azithromycin and cephalosporins (ESCs). Resistance to them has been reported in 50 countries.
Manica Balasegaram, director of the Global Antibiotic Research and Development Partnership, said the situation was grim and there was a “pressing need” for new medicines.
Few new drugs coming
The pipeline, however, is very thin, with only three potential new gonorrhea drugs in development and no guarantee any will prove effective in final-stage trials, he said.
“We urgently need to seize the opportunities we have with existing drugs and candidates in the pipeline,” he told reporters. “Any new treatment developed should be accessible to everyone who needs it, while ensuring it is used appropriately, so that drug resistance is slowed as much as possible.”
Gonorrhea can be transmitted via vaginal, anal and oral sex. Health officials advise using condoms and dental dams. The infected might have no symptoms, or mistake them for bladder or vaginal infection. Gonorrhea can infect the throat and eyes.