Neisseria gonorrhoeae

World-first case of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, identified in the UK

Public Health England released the first global report of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea.

Neisseria gonorrhoeae

Colourised scanning electron micrograph of Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacteria.
image via National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases / Flickr

A UK man is the first on record to contract a strand of gonorrhea that can shrug off our main antibiotic treatment against the disease. The report, issued by Public Health England (PHE), notes that while he had a regular partner in the UK, the man contracted the infection following a sexual encounter with a woman in south-east Asia.

He first visited a health clinic for treatment in early 2018. However, although doctors placed him on the recommended treatment for the disease — a cocktail of antibiotics azithromycin and ceftriaxone — the infection persists, according to The Guardian.

“We are investigating a case who has gonorrhoea which was acquired abroad and is very resistant to the recommended first line treatment,” said Dr Gwenda Hughes, the head of PHE’s STI section.

“This is the first time a case has displayed such high-level resistance to both of these drugs and to most other commonly used antibiotics.”

The man is currently receiving an intravenous treatment course of ertapenem, an antibiotic used as a last line of defense against multidrug-resistant bacteria. So far, it seems to be effective — lab tests scheduled for April will tell whether or not this is the case. The man’s partner tested negative for infection. However, authorities have traced the man’s sexual partners to ensure that the strain didn’t spread.

“We are following up this case to ensure that the infection was effectively treated with other options and the risk of any onward transmission is minimized,” Hughes adds.

Symptoms of gonorrhea include inflammation, a burning sensation when urinating, and unusual discharge from the sexual organ. Left untreated, the infection can cause other serious health problems, including long-term abdominal pain and pelvic inflammatory disease. But what makes the prospect of antibiotic-resistant strains really menacing is that these complications often lead to infertility.

The WHO estimates that some 78 million people worldwide contract gonorrhea each year. In the US, CDC estimates place the number of new infections at around 820,000 countrywide per year. Worse still, gonorrhea has shown a worrying trend of successive adaptation to our antibiotic treatments over the last few years. That’s why Hughes stressed the importance of practicing safe sex:

“It is better to avoid getting or passing on gonorrhoea in the first place and everyone can significantly reduce their risk by using condoms consistently and correctly with all new and casual partners,” she said in a statement.

Still, the report is a confirmation of healthcare authorities’ greatest fear: drug-resistant gonorrhea is spreading around the globe. Massive research efforts have led to an effective vaccine against the disease — but at the time of writing this, we’re still very far away from a fail-proof vaccine; currently, it only reduces the disease’s incidence by 31%, one in every three cases.

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