Gonorrhea Superbug is Resistant to Usual Treatments. Bad News, Sure, But Keep Your Pants On.

By Veronique Greenwood | July 12, 2011 12:59 pm

syringe

What’s the News: Gonorrhea, known in earlier days as the clap, has generally been considered the training wheels of STDs: a young sailor on his first tour of duty would feel a slight burning while urination, get a big shot of penicillin in the infirmary, learn the error of his ways, and start carrying a condom in his wallet.

But after years of warning that drug resistance in STDs was on the way, scientists have now found a strain of the bacterium that stands up to the usual antibiotic treatments, sparking fears that the days of easily banished gonorrhea are over.

How the Heck:

  • The researchers found the bacterium, called H041, in the throat of a Japanese sex worker.
  • It was 4-8 times more resistant to the normal treatment for oral gonorrhea, which is the injectable antibiotic ceftriaxone, than more common strains. This means that it takes a lot more drug to kill it, and the antibiotic’s side effects, including bursting blood cells and risk of internal bleeding, are not pleasant.
  • They also found that when the bacterium swapped genes with other strains of gonorrhea, their resistance increased up to 500-fold.

What’s the Context:

  • Cases of gonorrhea that are resistant to the antibiotics usually used to treat the disease—cefixime, which is taken orally, and the injectable ceftriaxone—have been on the rise, reports MSNBC: According to the CDC, the number of samples from patients showing greater than normal resistance to cefixime grew from .2 percent in 2000 to 1.4 percent in 2010, while ceftriaxone resistance grew from .1 percent to .3.
  • This particular finding is worrisome mainly because there aren’t any other well-established treatments for oral gonorrhea—because of its location, swallowing cefixime pills doesn’t help.

Not So Fast:

  • This is certainly chilling news, especially given the strain’s ability to boost other strains’ resistance. But it should be considered a warning shot rather than a moment for panic.
  • As Maggie Koerth-Baker at BoingBoing points out, this isn’t an incurable strain—just a difficult one to knock out when it’s contracted orally.
  • Furthermore, the CDC has already begun recommending new treatments for resistant gonorrhea strains: MSNBC reports that doctors in the US are already starting to treat such cases with higher doses and new combinations of antibiotics, namely azithromycin or doxycycline in addition to the usual drugs.
  • Since this finding was announced at a conference, we haven’t seen a full write-up of the researchers’ work. Once it’s published, we’ll have more details about what exactly is going on with this bacterium and how it reflects the growing trend of drug-resistant pathogens—for instance, the particular genes that give it its indestructibility. This will help us figure out a way to combat it.

The Future Holds: While this isn’t quite as catastrophic as many headlines are making out, it is a reminder both that unprotected oral sex is dangerous and that drug resistance is growing worldwide. As diseases we’ve grown cavalier about become more resistant to treatment, we may all be in for a nastier shock than that young sailor could have expected. Using a condom never looked better.

gonorrThis public service announcement is still relevant today.

Image credit: ad-vantage / flickr, otisarchives3 / flickr

  • Rhonda

    “This public service announcement is still relevant today” – what a highly sexist comment, AS WELL AS a sexist cartoon.
    As if males were the ‘victims’ of prostitutes, and not perpetrators or mutual consentors themselves.
    C’mon get real – this is the 21st century.

  • Gary B

    Rhonda, maybe I’m a slug, but I read that cartoon differently. I don’t see any hint that the men were ‘victims’ of the women. Both the men and the women want to be there, but I saw it as the diseases hitchhiking on human desires and habits.

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