Close on the heels of a post by Julie M. Rodriguez concerning the rise of drug-resistant diseases come warnings from the World Health Organization that a drug-resistant strain of gonorrhea is spreading around the globe. Rodriguez points out that overuse of antibiotics in livestock and lack of money to develop new antibiotics are behind most of the concerns of infectious disease experts.
Alarm bells are also ringing because of the nations that are reporting cases not responding to the standard, last-resort treatment: cephalosporin antibiotics. Included in the list of countries raising concerns are Australia, France, Japan, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
Gonorrhea is becoming a major public health challenge, due to the high incidence of infections accompanied by dwindling treatment options.
The available data only shows the tip of the iceberg. Without adequate surveillance we won’t know the extent of resistance to gonorrhea and without research into new antimicrobial agents, there could soon be no effective treatment for patients.
Resistance to cephalosporin antibiotics is just the latest turn the pathogen has taken. WHO says many common antibiotics such as penicillin, tetracyclines and quinolones are already ineffective and no new drugs are in the pipeline. At fault are “unrestricted access to antimicrobials, overuse and poor quality of antibiotics, as well as genetic mutations within disease organisms.”
Community clinics have been successful for years in treating gonorrhea, but as antibiotics lose their effectiveness, these low-cost options will disappear. WHO’s Global action plan points out what is involved in replacing current treatments, and it will require a kind of testing, intervention and oversight that will add enormous burdens to already sagging health systems.
The good news is that gonorrhea is preventable if partners practice safer sex and is still treatable with early intervention. The bad news is that we have known for a long time that practicing safe sex is the best prevention option, yet 106 million people contract gonorrhea every year.
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