A man in the United Kingdom has developed what may be the ‘worst-ever’ case of gonorrhoea. Health officials have said it is the first time a gonorrhoea infection could not be cured with commonly prescribed antibiotics.
The case has fuelled concerns of a growing trend of antibiotic resistance and underscores the need for the development of new antibiotics, according to experts.
The man’s disease is resistant to antibiotics azithromycin and ceftriaxone, which are often dually prescribed to treat the infection.
“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, head of Public Health England’s sexually transmitted infections (STI) section, said in statement on Wednesday.
“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 minimised.”
Although no other resistant infections have been detected so far, follow-up with the man’s sexual partners is on-going. The patient is currently being treated with another antibiotic called ertapene. Although the drug appears to be working, tests next month will confirm whether the treatment is effective.
Gonorrhoea is an STI caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 78 million people worldwide are infected with gonorrhoea each year, including 4.7 million in Europe.
Some men and most women who have gonorrhoea do not show any symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they may include a burning sensation when urinating, discharge from the vagina or penis and pain in the genital area. If left untreated, gonorrhoea can lead to serious conditions including pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility.
“The emergence of this new strain of highly resistant gonorrhoea is of huge concern and is a significant development,” Dr Olwen Williams, the president of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV, told the BBC.
Even before the recent case in the UK, antimicrobial resistance in gonorrhoea was becoming a greater global concern. Based on data from 77 countries, WHO warned last year that antibiotic resistance was making gonorrhoea infections significantly harder to treat.
“The bacteria that cause gonorrhoea are particularly smart,” said Dr Teodora Wi, human reproduction medical officer at WHO. “Every time we use a new class of antibiotics to treat the infection, the bacteria evolve to resist them.”
For these reasons, health officials and scientists have said new gonorrhoea treatments are desperately needed. “We urgently need to seize the opportunities we have with existing drugs and candidates in the pipeline,” Dr Manica Balasegaram, director of the Global Antibiotic Research and Development Partnership, said in July.
As of July last year, WHO reported that only three new candidate drugs were in the research and development pipeline for gonorrhoea.
Two new studies offer hope for the development of future treatments effective against antimicrobial resistant infections. Researchers at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, recently discovered a new class of antibiotics chemically similar to Vitamin A that show promise in treating hospital superbug MRSA.
Scientists at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, meanwhile, have uncovered how gonorrhoea bacteria evade the immune system. The authors say their findings, published on Friday in the journal PLOS Pathogens, open “up the way for therapies that prevent this process, allowing the body’s natural defences to kill the bug.”
Although the team at Monash did not develop any concrete treatments, their research may show promise in the fight against antibiotic resistant ‘superbugs,’ which could kill more people than cancer by 2050.