Gonorrhea used to be one of those "quick fix" sexually transmitted infections—as soon as you knew you had it, you could take an antibiotic and be done with it. That is changing rapidly, however—the bacteria that causes the disease is becoming resistant to antibiotics, which could have a major impact on public health, according to a report published Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Gonorrhea is the second most common STI in the United States (the first is HPV); more than 350,000 new cases were reported in 2014. Like many bacteria, the one that causes gonorrhea, called Neisseria gonorrhoeae, has gradually evolved to become resistant to the various antibiotics that have been used to combat it.
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The CDC now recommends dual therapy, a one-two punch of injected and oral antibiotics, to treat gonorrhea. But according to the report, those two might not work for much longer. The researchers tested the resistance of the bacteria in 5,000 specimens collected from patients all over the country in 2014. They found that the bacteria were highly resistant to a number of antibiotics, and that resistance of the two currently in use has grown—for one, azithromycin, the percentage of bacteria resistant to treatment grew from 0.6 to 2.5 between 2013 and 2014. The increase in resistant bacteria was found in samples from all over the country (but especially in the midwest) and people of all sexual orientations.
Untreatable gonorrhea is just one of the semi-apocalyptic predictions for widespread antibiotic resistance. Trips to the hospital, simple surgical procedures, or even a mere cut could become lethal if an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection resulted from any of them. Discovering new antibiotics is expensive and difficult, so few pharmaceutical companies devote their resources to it. Now scientists in the academic and public sectors are pushing for more research to speed up this process, but progress has been slow.
For now, if you get gonorrhea, you can probably still find an antibiotic that works. To lower your risk of contracting gonorrhea that might be resistant to treatment, use a condom.
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