Gonorrhea may soon become untreatable, due in large part to the misuse of the antibiotics currently used against the sexually transmitted disease, the World Health Organization warned Thursday.
Not only are the cheaper, first-line medications for gonorrhea becoming less effective as antimicrobial resistance in the disease spreads, but the WHO is concerned that cephalosporin, considered the third and last-line drug used for gonorrhea is also threatened.
Australia, Hong Kong and Japan have reported treatment failures with oral cephalosporin.
“We are dealing with a serious issue with the implication that gonorrhea may become untreatable,” Dr. Shin Young-soo, WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, said in a statement.
“This will have a major impact on our efforts to control the disease and will result in an increase in serious health-related complications.”
It’s estimated that more than 700,000 people in the U.S. contract gonorrheal infections each year. Only about half of those infections are reported, according to the CDC.
If left untreated, gonorrhea can cause infertility in both men and women, pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy, infections in newborn children, urethral strictures and scrotal swelling. Gonorrhea also increases the likelihood of acquiring and transmitting HIV infection.
WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are developing an action plan in response to the drug resistance threat that includes increased monitoring of resistance, identifying alternative treatments and pushing to increase awareness of the issue.
“It is critical that we maximize the use of all available tools, including screening and behavioral interventions to reduce the toll not only of gonorrhea, but of other STDs, as well,” Nikki Kay, a spokesperson for the CDC said in an email. “And, specific to gonorrhea, it is also critical that we expand treatment options, given developing drug resistance.”