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Why gonorrhea may be the next superbug

Posted by mandyf on August 19, 2012

Just when you thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse, scientists believe they have identified they next superbug – and it is not going to be pretty. No super bug is good and the way they tend to lay waste to everyone is horrific, but this new superbug really hits people where it hurts – their sex life. As tough as it is to swallow, a new and incurable strain of gonorrhea may be the next superbug.

When most people hear gonorrhea they tend to think no problem – a shot of penicillin and everything is back to normal. The problem is that gonorrhea is not only ugly, it is getting more and more durable and resistant to penicillin. The other problem is people are not going to stop having sex and the spread of gonorrhea is not going to disappear.

When it was first noted that penicillin was performing at a less effective rate there was no initial alarm. There is an alternate treatment in the cephalosporin family of antibiotics so treatment continued using that and nobody was wise to what was happening until international data was pooled, compiled, and analyzed. Then it became clear that gonorrhea was not just becoming more resistant to penicillin in a limited area – it was everywhere.

By the time that discovery was made, vetted, and accepted, gonorrhea was becoming resistant to the cephalosporins. That is when alarm bells really started going off. Gonorrhea was not only becoming resistant to known available forms of treatment, it was doing so much quicker than was anticipated.

To put things in context, consider the statistics. In the U.S. alone in 2008, there were 336,742official cases of gonorrhea reported via the CDC. The key phrase here is “official cases.” When considering the number of cases that went unreported or somehow slipped through the cracks or flew under the radar, the real number of cases of gonorrhea is estimated to be higher, and around several hundred thousand cases are expected to be reported in 2010.

For most people several hundred thousand cases of gonorrhea seems negligible in contrast to the entire U.S population. The problem is, as treatment for it becomes less effective, there could be a rapid proliferation in the spread of the STD. Doctors point out that too many people will not stop having sex and will continue to spread the drug-resistant form of gonorrhea, not to mention the people that do not even know they have it.

Gonorrhea is sneaky in that it doesn’t always display obvious signs of being present right away. Unfortunately the most reported cases in the U.S. are from girls aged 15-19 who are not always the most knowledgeable demographic when it comes to STD’s, or the most likely to seek immediate treatment. When they fail to do so they risk not only passing it, but pelvic disease, ectopic pregnancies, and infertility. To make matters worse, they are also more likely to contract HIV if they come in contact with it by an order of three.

If you haven’t begun to take it seriously yet, consider this. In the 1930’s sulfa based treatments worked just fine when it came to treating gonorrhea, and they are now ineffective. Penicillin not only worked nearly every time, but it worked pretty darn fast. Now penicillin is failing, and its replacement cephalosporin is failing. It took about ten years for sulpha to fail from the height of its documented use. It took penicillin about 60 years to begin hitting the skids, and cephalosporins began showing less effect in under a decade. Right now, it is documented that 40% of the reported cases of gonorrhea are already resistant to penicillin.

To make matters worse, people that present with one STD are statistically more likely to contract another. Recent studies have shown the strains of syphilis, and Chlamydia are starting to show resistance to treatment as well. The more drugs that are thrown at STD’s the more they adapt.  The more they adapt the harder they are to treat, which means they can spread quicker. The CDC and various organizations around the world are working on contingency plans should this become a bigger problem than it already is, but the question is if science can stay ahead of nature.

America Unzipped by Brian Alexander
MSNBC Health Watch


One Response to “Why gonorrhea may be the next superbug”

  1. Libby Keane said

    I always enjoy your posts Mandy. I never know what the topic will be, but I know I’ll learn something new. Thanks.

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