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Untreatable Gonorrhea Is Rapidly Spreading. Here's What You Need to Know

From TIME - October 31, 2017

As drug-resistant gonorrhea rapidly spreads around the world, one team of researchers may have a strategy to combat it, according to a new study.

Gonorrhea is becoming a superbug, meaning the drugs typically used to treat it are no longer reliably effective. Should gonorrheas antibiotic resistance continue to increase, the results could be bleak, given that the sexually transmitted disease can cause long-term complications like infertility if left untreated.

In July, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that around the globe, about 78 million people are infected with gonorrhea each year, and that 97% of 77 countries surveyed from 2009 to 2014 reported the presence of drug-resistant gonorrhea strains. Sixty-six percent of the countries reported the emergence of resistance to last resort drug treatments for the infection.

If a person gets a resistant strain of gonorrhea today, it doesnt necessarily mean that they wont ever clear the infection. At the moment, all cases of gonorrhea are still treatable using some combination of available antibiotics, says Dr. Xavier Didelot, senior lecturer in the department of infectious disease and epidemiology at Imperial College London. But at the current rate at which resistance is developing, we could find ourselves facing a situation where no antibiotic works, which would mean a return to the pre-antibiotic era.

To prevent that from happening, researchers are working to figure out new treatment strategies for gonorrhea. In a new study published Tuesday in the journal PLOS Medicine, Didelot and his colleagues report that relying more on an older drug for the disease may stop it from becoming more resistant to antibiotics.

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Cefixime is an antibiotic that was previously used to treat gonorrhea, but doctors largely stopped using it due to high levels of resistance and its inability to clear infections. However, Didelot and his fellow researchers developed mathematical models to look at cefiximes resistance trends between 2008 and 2015 and determine whether it could still be used in some people without increasing resistance. In the study, they predict that cefixime could be re-introduced successfully as long as it is only used to treat a quarter of infections.

We are now running out of options to treat gonorrhea cases, says Didelot. So instead of waiting for the few remaining options to fail, we need to start using antibiotics in a way that does not lead to resistance developing.

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