Drug Resistant Gonorrhea

In the battle against gonorrhea, we're getting our butts kicked.

Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection that spreads through sexual contact. More than 350,000 new cases were reported in the United States in 2014, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC). But the agency has reason to believe that the real number is much higher. Young people, especially those under 24, appear to be most at risk of gonorrhea, the CDC reported at its STD Prevention Conference in Atlanta.

In men, gonorrhea causes swollen or painful testicles; burning and painful urination; and a yellow or green discharge from the penis. In women, the symptoms are very slim, and the disease is often mistaken for a bladder or vaginal infection.

The CDC announced that gonorrhea samples taken last spring from seven patients in Honolulu showed resistance to azithromycin at dramatically higher levels than typically seen in the United States.

Worse yet, five of the samples also showed increased resistance to ceftriaxone. The CDC released data earlier this year that showed evidence of emerging azithromycin resistance in gonorrhea samples found across the nation, but those infections were still susceptible to ceftriaxone. In the past, the two drugs have often been used in tandem against the disease.

Now it's beginning to look like all bets are off.

"Our last line of defense against gonorrhea is weakening," saidDr. Jonathan Mermin, director of CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention. "If resistance continues to increase and spread, current treatment will ultimately fail and 800,000 Americans a year will be at risk for untreatable gonorrhea."

Is there any good news at all? Maybe. Louisiana State University announced at that same conference that a team of their scientists were testing an experimental oral antibiotic that might present a new option for treating gonorrhea.

Some more hope lay in the work being done at the University of Hawaii. In a clinical trial there, 179 gonorrhea patients were treated using either an experimental antibiotic called ETX0914. ETX0914 cured nearly all patients, researchers reported. ETX0914 has been effective against antibiotic-resistant strains of gonorrhea in the lab; scientists have hopes they can replace ceftriaxone in the recommended dual-treatment regimen.

Dr. Stephanie Taylor, a professor of medicine and microbiology at Louisiana State, said, "We are very pleased with these results, and look forward to seeing ETX0914 advance through additional clinical studies."