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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 14, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 41
Brits warned about drug-resistant gonorrhea
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Brits warned about drug-resistant gonorrhea

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Britain's Health Protection Agency has warned doctors that the antibiotic usually used to treat gonorrhea is no longer effective because the bacterial infection is now largely resistant to it.

Prof. Cathy Ison, a gonorrhea expert at HPA, says that unless new treatments are found, gonorrhea may be incurable in the future.

'Our lab tests have shown a dramatic reduction in the sensitivity of the drug we were using as the main treatment for gonorrhea. This presents the very real threat of untreatable gonorrhea in the future,' Ison said.

'We were so worried by the results we were seeing that we recommended that guidelines on the treatment of gonorrhea be revised in May this year, to recommend a more effective drug.

'But this won't solve the problem, as history tells us that resistance to this therapy will develop too. In the absence of any new alternative treatments for when this happens, we will face a situation where gonorrhea cannot be cured.'

For now, the HPA advised doctors to stop using the usual antibiotic treatment cefixime and instead use two more powerful antibiotics. One is available as a pill and the other as an injection.

The World Health Organization recommends that a first-line antibiotic should be changed when treatment failure in patients reaches 5%.

But for cefixime the change is being made pre-emptively, the HPA says, because of the alarming increase in resistance to the medication.

Tests on samples taken from patients and grown in the laboratory showed reduced susceptibility to cefixime in nearly 20% of cases in 2010, compared with just 10% of cases in 2009.

As recently as 2005, no gonorrhea bacteria with reduced susceptibility to cefixime could be found in the U.K. The bacterium that causes the infection - Neisseria gonorrhoeae - has an unusual ability to adapt itself and has gained resistance, or reduced susceptibility, to a growing list of antibiotics - first penicillin itself, then tetracyclines, ciprofloxacin, and now cefixime.

'This highlights the importance of practicing safe sex,' Ison added, 'as, if new antibiotic treatments can't be found, this will be only way of controlling this infection in the future.'

The new drug-resistant strain of gonorrhea, H041, was first identified in July, by Swedish researchers working in Japan.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 700,000 Americans contract gonorrhea each year.

The infection initially causes 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 to the newest drugs, cefixime and ceftriaxone.

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