August 10, 2012
(USA TODAY) -- Federal health officials took steps Thursday to head off the emergence of a new gonorrhea "superbug" that is resistant to standard antibiotics.
Gonorrhea, a sexually transmitted disease that infects 700,000 Americans a year, is resistant to all but one class of antibiotics and could soon become untreatable, federal health officials warned. Doctors at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new treatment guidelines, hoping to delay the day when standard drugs no longer work. The guidelines call for switching from a single pill to combination therapy: a shot, to which the gonorrhea bacteria seems less likely to develop resistance, along with a different type of antibiotic pill.
Gonorrhea is a major cause of infertility among women. It increases a person's risk of becoming infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and of spreading it, the CDC says.
Doctors detected a highly resistant superbug form of gonorrhea in Japan in 2009, says P. Frederick Sparling, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
The superbug hasn't been detected in the U.S., but "it is likely a matter of time," says Susan Philip, director of STD prevention and control services at San Francisco Department of Public Health. Doctors are seeing the start of drug resistance on the West Coast, especially in gay and bisexual men, she says.
Patients infected with a resistant strain of gonorrhea would have to be treated with alternative medications that aren't proven to work and which could cause more toxic side effects, Sparling says. Only one new antibiotic against gonorrhea is in development, though researchers are testing combinations of currently available drugs.
In some ways, gonorrhea has been a "canary in the coal mine," for doctors, as "it picks up resistance very easily," says Carlos del Rio, a physician on the board of directors for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and an author of the new CDC treatment guidelines. Gonorrhea became resistant to the first antimicrobial drugs used against it as early as the 1930s. Doctors have been concerned about the rise of resistant strains of all kinds of bacteria for years, as antibiotics are overused in medicine and agriculture.
Doctors are now combating antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis and staph infections, Sparling says.
"We desperately need new antibiotics to fight infections," del Rio says.
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