Gonorrhea, one of the the smartest of all the bacterial STDs, is on the rise. From Wyoming to Utah to Minnesota, there are reports of cases increasing, some by 74 percent—all on the heels of the first incurable strain hitting North American genitalia back earlier this year. And now, British doctors who devote their careers to studying The Clap are warning that the disease could be completely untreatable sooner than the U.S. elects a new president. "[T]here is a possibility that if we don't do something then it could become untreatable by 2015," professor Cathy Ison, head of the National Reference Laboratory for Gonorrhea in the U.K., told the BBC Wednesday.
"Untreatable," as Dr. Ison sees it, would be a nightmare scenario not only for patients bound to suffer complications like infertility and ectopic pregnancies, but also for doctors who could no longer break transmission, becoming unprepared to deal with more complex infections. And though Ison's warning of a gonorrhea doomsday is a hypothetical worst-case scenario, the troubling signs of growing cases and incurable strains are already here.
On a state-by-state basis, pockets of the U.S. are seeing giant spikes in the disease. Utah saw a 74 percent rise in gonorrhea cases in 2012, with the trend continuing into the first few months of this year. Over in Minnesota, cases of The Clap rose 35 percent in 2012, according to the state's department of health, and according to the latest statistics from the CDC, "During 2010–2011, 61% (31/51) of states, plus the District of Columbia, reported an increase in gonorrhea rates."
All of which isn't much cause for concern, since we can cure most strains of gonorrhea discreetly. But, back in January, a Canadian study released by the Journal of the American Medical Association said that they "found that 6.7 percent of patients with gonorrhea at a Toronto clinic still had the disease after a round of cephalosporins, the last effective oral antibiotic used to treat the disease." That was the first incurable strain found on North American soil. And in February, the CDC's director of sexually transmitted disease prevention program issued a warning in The New England Journal of Medicine that our last line of antimicrobial defenses were waning.
So what do those two factors—an increase in cases, and an increase in incurable strains—mean for your body? Well, according to Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, associate Director for Healthcare Associated Infection Prevention Programs at the CDC, it means serious treatments for a disease that could have been cured by a few pills. He told PBS's Newshour earlier this month:
The challenge that we face is that we are running out of the first-line treatment options that we like to use. And in particular, we're running out of many of the oral treatment options that we have been able to use. Which means that as we run out of those oral agents, people might need intravenous therapy for treatment of simple gonorrhea infections that in the past could have been treated with an oral antibiotic. This is now being seen in the United States.
"I am unaware of any new classes of antibiotics being developed," added Ison, the British gonorrhea doomsayer, cutting off one possible solution. What's perhaps more disconcerting, as the CDC's Srinivasan notes, is that gonorrhea's evolving drug resistance is partially based on our reliance upon antibiotics. He says:
If you don't need an antibiotic, you're taking a medicine that has risks and you're accruing no benefit from it. There was also a study recently that showed that if you take a course of antibiotics, you are significantly more likely down the road to develop an infection with a drug resistant bacteria.
Luckily, those killer strains are not very common right now. But like gonorrhea, that could change if we don't make new drugs or curb our irresponsible antibiotic use — meaning, come 2015, we might be thankful if untreatable gonorrhea is our biggest problem.
Photo by: Sebastian Kaulitzki via Shutterstock