New gonorrhea strain may make STD untreatable

SOLNA, Sweden — A new strain of gonorrhea could make the sexually transmitted disease untreatable, a new study warns.

A team with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control says the strain is resistant to current options doctors prescribe to treat symptoms of gonorrhea. Specifically, drug-resistant (XDR) Neisseria gonorrhoeae was highly resistant to azithromycin and was also resistant to ceftriaxone, cefixime, cefotaxime, ciprofloxacin, and tetracycline.

What is gonorrhea?

This bacterial infection is transmitted by sexual contact and often causes painful urination and abnormal discharges from the penis or vagina. If left untreated, the infection can result in infertility for the carrier.

Currently, there is no vaccine to protect against this STD. That makes protected sex, early detection, treatment with medication, and notifying sex partners as the best ways of stopping gonorrhea from spreading.

The team notes that doctors have been treating the STD with antimicrobials since the 1930s, but Neisseria gonorrhoeae now displays drug resistance to every class of these medications.

Where did the strain originate?

Study authors say a heterosexual man in Austria displayed symptoms of gonorrhea in April 2022 after having unprotected sex with a female sex worker in Cambodia. Initial treatment with ceftriaxone and azithromycin failed. Following that first treatment course, a polymerase chain reaction test detected Neisseria gonorrhoeae.

Researchers say the case in Austria has discovered the second strain of the infection which is resistant to ceftriaxone and azithromycin. It’s also very similar to the “WHO Q” reference strain. The team says this strain has been linked to three cases of gonorrhea in the United Kingdom and Australia in 2018. The “WHO Q” strain also has reported links to South East Asia.

Could gonorrhea become untreatable?

The ECDC warns that the emergence of drug-resistant Neisseria gonorrhoeae strains presents a global public risk, especially with the number of effective treatments dwindling. The team adds that if these new strains begin to spread regularly, it could make the STD untreatable by modern medicine.

“Enhanced antimicrobial resistance surveillance (ideally including test of cure and whole-genome sequencing), nationally and internationally, particularly in Asia where many ceftriaxone-resistant strains appear to have emerged, is of highest importance. Ultimately, novel antimicrobials for effective treatment of gonorrhea and/or a sufficiently effective gonococcal vaccine will be crucial,” study authors conclude in a media release.

The findings appear in the journal Eurosurveillance.

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