There was a bit of buzz last week about a new “sex superbug” making its way into the U.S., but reports of an antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea strain are premature, according to public health officials.
Unlike the fallacious news report in the video above, the treatment-resistant strain, called H041, isn’t more deadly than the HIV virus—it’s actually less life-threatening—and hasn’t been linked to any deaths.
But that doesn’t mean we can rest easy or get lazy about protecting ourselves from sexually transmitted diseases. It’s quite possible that the H041 strain will appear in Boston within a year or two.
“It’s been on our radar screen for many years,” said Dr. Al DeMaria, an infectious disease specialist at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. “Gonorrhea has developed a resistance to every antibiotic we’ve used against it from penicillin to tetracycline to azithromycin, one after another.”
The second most common reported infectious disease, gonorrhea causes infertility if left untreated and sometimes kills.
Only one drug in the antibiotic arsenal can reliably treat the 2,300 people in Massachusetts who become infected with gonorrhea every year: the injectable ceftriaxone. But a few documented infections occurring in Japan, France, and Spain over the past few years have become resistant even to this antibiotic.
So far, an incurable gonorrhea infection hasn’t been seen in the U.S., but the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recently seen an increase in lab-tested strains showing some resistance to ceftriaxone. The agency now recommends that patients be treated with a combination of ceftriaxone and azithromycin.
“That gives patients a bit more protection” said DeMaria, in case the bacteria strain doesn’t respond to one of the two drugs. Another newer antibiotic can also be used to wipe out resistant infections, but it’s expensive and hard to obtain, he said.
As drug resistance continues to be a growing problem worldwide, pharmaceutical companies have been rolling out fewer new antibiotics onto the marketplace. That’s because they don’t have strong financial incentives to continue research into new classes of drugs, DeMaria said.
“From all indications, all the bullets we will have are already in our ammunition belt,” he wrote in a 2005 paper published in the Journal of Clinical Infectious Diseases.
And the problem has only gotten worse. An April report from the Infectious Disease Society of America indicates that the goal of creating new antibiotics to target drug-resistant bacterial infections remains “alarmingly elusive” with the approval of only two new antibiotics since 2009.
New legislation passed by Congress last year provides incentives for drug companies to develop new antibiotics by, for example, extending the length of time an antibiotic would remain under patent and free from generic competition.
But it may take several years to see any real impact from the new law, underscoring the need for people to remain vigilant about preventing sexually transmitted diseases. The CDC stresses that sexually active folks who aren’t in a monogamous long-term relationship should be using condoms consistently each time they have sex.