Contracting gonorrhea has never been a welcome experience, but a new, untreatable strain of the disease that surfaced in Japan has made it even more problematic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that a new strain of gonorrhea, a disease once easily treated with antibiotics, has evolved into a “superbug” that is unresponsive to all known treatments.
“This is an enormous public health issue because we’re dealing with 700,000 new cases a year in the U.S.,” said Peter Leone, medical director of the North Carolina HIV/STD Prevention and Control Branch. “Given how common it is, we wouldn’t be able to treat all of these folks.”
Although gonorrhea has mutated to resist treatment in the past, this is the first
time that health officials have not had alternative drugs to fall back on, Leone said.
So far, reported cases have been restricted to Japan and Norway. However, health officials worry that it is only a matter of time before the strain goes global.
“Given treatment failures [overseas] and gonorrhea’s ability to mutate, we suspect that treatment failures may be on the horizon for the U.S.,” said CDC spokesman
According to Bryan, superbugs like gonorrhea evolve to resist antibiotics by picking up DNA from treatment-immune bacteria and passing it to future generations. Although the CDC is looking to existing antibiotics to treat the new strain, no new drugs are being researched.
Gonorrhea, the second most common sexually transmitted disease in the U.S. next to the human papillomavirus, is spread through vaginal, anal and oral sex. According to the CDC, mothers can also pass it to their babies during delivery, which often causes blindness and severe infection for the newborn.
Symptoms in both men and women include burning during urination and a green or yellow discharge from the genitals. However, many people only experience mild symptoms, especially when contracted orally, and approximately 50 percent of women exhibit none at all, Leone said.
“Since women only have symptoms half of the time, regular screening is critical to diagnose them,” he said.
Men also pose a problem in gonorrhea diagnosis because although they generally show more symptoms, they are less likely to seek treatment. This is especially true for men who have sex with men, a group that has high rates of asymptomatic oral and anal gonorrhea.
“Most folks with oral and rectal cases don’t have symptoms, so unless they’re thinking about it, then they won’t make the diagnosis,” Leone said.
He believes that the stigma surrounding STDs and homosexual men, a group that accounts for 20 percent of all new cases, needs to be dropped to properly address this issue.
“The fact that we don’t have programs in place for men and there hasn’t been a lot of attention to this problem is really tied to the stigmas associated with sex, and homosexuality in particular,” Leone said. “I think we need more resources going to this and hopefully we’ll get more clinicians aware as well.”
When left untreated, gonorrhea can lead to serious health consequences for both sexes. Untreated women run the risk of developing chronic pelvic pain, abnormal pregnancies and infertility, while men face chronic testicular pain, the CDC reported.
Doctors recommend that sexually active people use condoms and get regular screening to protect themselves from contracting and spreading the new strain.
“This is a public health issue that needs more attention,” Bryan said. “The CDC encourages [researchers] to make finding new solutions a priority and for healthcare providers to be aware of resistance.”