The sexually transmitted illness gonorrhea appears to be becoming resistant to antibiotics used to treat it.

Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that antibiotic resistant cases have more than quadrupled, writes E.J. Mundell for CBS. The body says that “the future of current treatment options may be in jeopardy.”

Gonorrhea
Image source: Public Domain

Gonorrhea becoming more resistant to antibiotics

“The confluence of emerging drug resistance and very limited alternative options for treatment creates a perfect storm for future gonorrhea treatment failure in the U.S.,” said Dr. Jonathan Mermin, who directs the CDC’sNational Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and Tuberculosis Prevention

“History shows us that bacteria will find a way to outlast the antibiotics we’re using to treat it,” Mermin said. “We are running just one step ahead in order to preserve the remaining treatment option for as long as possible.”

The agency says that the multidrug treatment that it recommends “still works” at the moment. There has not been a case in the U.S. in which treatment has failed completely.

However a number of cases have been observed in which gonorrhea demonstrated “decreased susceptibility” to azithomycin, a key antibiotic. These cases increased from 0.6% in 2013 to 2.5% in 2014.

New infections should be prevented to slow resistance

The CDC believes that azithromycin “will be next in the long line of antibiotics to which gonorrhea bacteria have become resistant — a list that includes penicillin, tetracycline and fluoroquinolones.”

Azithromycin is sometimes used in combination with ceftriaxone, another antibiotic.

“It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persist,” said Dr. Gail Bolan, director of the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention.

It is possible to slow antibiotic resistance by reducing the number of new cases of gonorrhea in the U.S., according to Mermin. CDC data shows that over 800,000 cases of gonorrhea occur per year in the United States.

Diagnosis complicated by asymptomatic cases

Gonorrhea infections sometimes occur with no symptoms, which means that diagnosis can be difficult. The CDC says that less than 50% of infections are diagnosed, and the agency says that infections are rising among men in particular.

Symptoms of the illness include a green or whitish discharge and uncomfortable urination. If gonorrhea is left untreated it can lead to serious health issues, particularly for women. It has been linked to chronic pelvic pain, ectopic pregnancies and infertility.

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reporton July 15.

“While no treatment failures have been reported in the United States, this data shows a very troubling trend, one that NCSD has been raising a clarion call on for years: that gonorrhea is steadily outwitting the drugs we have to treat it,” stated William Smith, Executive Director of the National Coalition of STD Directors (NCSD).

“This is shown not only by this data, but also the recent gonorrhea treatment failure in the United Kingdom.  Not only do we need new drugs to fight this infection but we also need additional resources to address our current gonorrhea epidemic, as rates are currently rising across the country,” continued Smith.

It is advisable to get a test for gonorrhea if you think that you might be at risk. As the illness can be asymptomatic, carriers can infect others without knowing.