Despite warnings of drug resistance and several reports of increasingly resistant cases of gonorrhea, health officials recently reported a strain of super-resistant gonorrhea in the United Kingdom.
A man sought treatment earlier this year in the UK for symptoms that appeared about a month after he had sexual contact with someone, according to his case report. Doctors treated the infection with two of the most common, effective antibiotics typically used for gonorrhea — azithromycin and ceftriaxone — but the man's tests still came back positive for the STI.
"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," Gwenda Hughes, who leads the STI section at Public Health England, said Wednesday.
Health officials have been warning of gonorrhea's increased resistance to antibiotics for several years — a 2017 study documented at least three cases in which no antibiotics were effective. Teodora Wi, a medical officer in reproductive health with the World Health Organization, previously explained that "gonorrhea is a very smart bug, [and] every time you introduce a new type of antibiotic to treat it, this bug develops resistance to it."
What makes this even more worrisome is that gonorrhea is an incredibly common STI. According to CDC data, there are approximately 820,000 new cases of gonorrhea in the United States alone each year. David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, told CNN that this latest case report "is one more confirmation of our greatest fear: drug-resistant gonorrhea spreading around the globe."
Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection that's carried in semen, pre-ejaculate, and vaginal fluids, and can infect the vagina, cervix, penis, anus, urethra, throat, and rarely, the eyes. Most people don't experience symptoms, and it can be spread in the absence of symptoms. Strains that aren't drug resistant are actually very treatable with antibiotics. But because it rarely comes with symptoms, regular STI testing and consistently using barrier methods like condoms are the best ways to prevent the spread of gonorrhea, and avoid further drug-resistance.