Officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) are have issued a warning of untreatable strains of drug-resistant gonorrhea and are calling for more vigilance on the proper treatment of the disease with antibiotics, according to a report from TIME's Healthland.
The "superbug" strains of the sexually transmitted infection are widely spreading and resistant to cephalosporin antibiotics, normally the last line of defense against gonorrhea.
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The findings were first reported to have been discovered last year in Japan in 2008 and researchers warned that the disease could turn into a global epidemic.
WHO has reported that the drug-resistant strains are popping up in many countries, including Australia, France, Norway, Sweden and the U.K.
Unless doctors can catch the disease early, millions of people may run out of treatment options.
"This organism has basically been developing resistance against every medication we've thrown at it," Dr. Manjula Lusti-Narasimhan, a scientist in the WHO's department of sexually transmitted diseases, told the Associated Press. "In a couple of years it will have become resistant to every treatment option we have available now."
After chlamydia, gonorrhea is the most commonly sexually transmitted disease in the world, infecting more than 106 million people each year. In the U.S. alone, more than 700,000 people are estimated to become infected with gonorrhea each year.
Untreated, the bacterial infection can cause:
- Infection of the urethra, cervix and rectum
- Infertility in both men and women
- A significantly increased risk of HIV infection and transmission
- Ectopic pregnancy, spontaneous abortion, stillbirth and premature birth
- Severe eye infections that can lead to blindness, which occur in 30 percent to 50 percent of babies born to women with untreated gonorrhea
Gonorrhea has already become resistant to penicillin, tetracycline and quinolones.
Over-the-counter availability of low-potency antibiotics in some Asian countries may also help explain why resistance is increasing.
To prevent spread, better sex education is needed, along with increased monitoring and research into new treatments. Using condoms during sex is one of the most effective ways ti prevent infection. "We're not going to be able to get rid of it completely," Lusti-Narasimhan told the AP. "But we can limit the spread."