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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 15, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 28
Antibiotic-resistant strain of gonorrhea found in Japan
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Antibiotic-resistant strain of gonorrhea found in Japan

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Scientists have discovered a new super-gonorrhea strain in Japan, raising concern among health officials worldwide.

The new strain, called H041, is resistant to the only antibiotics that treat the common sexually transmitted disease.

'An era of untreatable gonorrhea may have been initiated,' the researchers warn in a published summary of their report.

'This is both an alarming and a predictable discovery,' Dr. Magnus Unemo, a researcher at the Swedish Reference Laboratory for Pathogenic Neisseria in Orebro, Sweden, said in a written statement.

'The history of newly emergent resistance in the bacterium suggests that it may spread rapidly unless new drugs and effective treatment programs are developed.'

Unemo and his team announced their findings at an international medical conference in Quebec on July 11.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that gonorrhea infects some 700,000 Americans each year.

It initially can cause painful urination and other symptoms, but can develop into chronic infections that can lead to infertility, joint damage, and serious infections in babies born to infected mothers.

People with gonorrhea are also at higher risk of getting HIV.

Experience has shown that once a resistant strain of gonorrhea appears, it steadily displaces those that can be killed with antibiotics.

This happened in the 1970s and 1980s with penicillin and tetracycline and more recently with a class of drugs called fluoroquinolones, such as Cipro.

The ominous thing about H041 is that it is highly resistant, the researchers say, to cephalosporins - specifically the mainstay drugs cefixime and ceftriaxone.

The CDC tells doctors to use these drugs in combination with another antibiotic - preferably azithromycin - to treat all gonorrhea these days.

'Why this is so concerning is that there are no other treatment options besides cephalosporins right now,' Dr. Kimberly Workowski, an associate professor of medicine at Emory University, told MSNBC on July 12.

US health officials are already on the lookout for this potential super-gonorrhea at home.

A study published in the July 8 issue of the CDC journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report warned doctors to look for and report cases of gonorrhea that are resistant to cephalosporin antibiotics.

'We do fear that based on what we are hearing around the world, we will see cephalosporin-resistant gonorrhea,' Dr. Gail Bolan, director of STD prevention at the CDC, told WebMD.

'We don't know when this is going to happen, but the hope is that we have a few years to identify other treatments.'

The CDC is asking doctors to follow current treatment guidelines, which require prescribing two types of antibiotics. If doctors suspect a patient has a resistant strain, they should take a culture and contact the local or state health department, the CDC said.

The author of the CDC report, Dr. Edward Hook, professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told MSNBC that this is a serious issue that faces health experts.

'Could we be developing a problem that is far worse and more problematic? Absolutely,' Hook warned.

Meanwhile, the CDC is developing alternative treatment strategies.

It is about to start a trial, operated through the National Institutes of Health, to look at alternative therapies like giving patients a one-two punch of an oral and an intramuscular injection using two different classes of antibiotics at once.

Resistance might become an issue in other bacterial STDs as well.

About 30% of women who contract gonorrhea are co-infected with chlamydia. While chlamydia seems to respond well to medication so far, a small number of strains have shown signs of developing drug-resistance, says Dr Workowski.

Syphilis has already defeated one drug used to treat it, azithromycin. Between 2000 and 2004, the prevalence of azithromycin-resistant syphilis in one San Francisco clinic jumped from zero to 56%.

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