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Gonorrhea Could Join Growing List of Untreatable Diseases

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Gonorrhea under a microscope. Image: courtesy of CDC/Susan Lindsley

The arms race between humanity and disease-causing bacteria is drawing to a close—and the bacteria are winning. The latest evidence: gonorrhea is becoming resistant to all standard antibiotic treatment.

Gonorrhea is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases in the world—with about 600,000 cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year. A few years ago, investigators started seeing cases of infection that did not easily respond to treatment with a group of drugs called cephalosporins, which are currently the last line of defense against this particular infection. Now, the number of drug-resistant cases has grown so much in the U.S. and elsewhere that gonorrheal infection may soon become untreatable, according to doctors writing in the February 9 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

If it seems to you that the drumbeat of bad news with respect to antibiotic resistance has become louder and more insistent in the past few years, you would be right:

Researchers reported in January that they had for the first time collected samples of E. coli bacteria from the Antarctic with particularly dangerous drug-resistance genes. The dispersal of drug resistance genes via E. coli is particularly worrisome because that bacterium lives normally in the human intestine along with thousands of other species of bacteria. From that fertile ground, there’s practically no stopping the widespread dissemination of bacterial resistance genes.

Meanwhile reports surfaced in India of several cases of totally untreatable tuberculosis—although further investigation suggested that they may have “merely” been extensively drug-resistant TB.

Hospitals in New York City are now struggling with how to deal with a deadly pneumonia that resists treatment with powerful, last-resort antibiotics called carbapenems, as reported by Maryn McKenna in a feature for Scientific American, entitled “The Enemy Within: A New Pattern of Antibiotic Resistance” (preview version here). Indeed, figuring out how to deal with the problem is the subject of an upcoming seminar on carbapenem resistance, at the New York Academy of Science on February 17.

Scientific American has actually written a fair amount on the problem of antibiotic resistance in all its guises. Check out our in-depth report on the “Crisis of Antibiotic Resistance,” which I just pulled together, for more detail.


About the Author: Christine Gorman is the editor in charge of health and medicine features for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. Follow on Twitter @cgorman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. N a g n o s t i c 10:14 am 02/9/2012

    Gonorrhea will always be treatable. Don’t have sex with someone carrying the disease. Of course, this would be easier if we were to require licensing of those desiring to have sex. We already license those who wish to practice potentially harmful tasks such as serving food, driving motor vehicles, practicing medicine, architecture and law, plumbing, land surveying and hair styling. Sex can harmfully affect everyone, and in more serious ways than the above mentioned activities.

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  2. 2. dhbone 10:16 am 02/11/2012

    I hope that someone like Nagnostic is never in charge. No offense, but that is one of the dumber things I have read in a while. I wouldn’t equate having sex with practicing medicine or driving a vehicle. But what should be looked at is the United State’s immature attitude toward sex. There are often links between lack of sexual education (including the ever-so-stupid “abstinence only”) and instances of STDs. People get so upset at the thought of offering condoms in school because of their selfish personal beliefs without realizing that it could really help with the prevention of STDs. Abstinence only is IGNORANT and will never work–they will do it anyway. So why not give them the education and tools needed to make it safer?

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  3. 3. jgrosay 1:47 pm 02/11/2012

    In the 40′s spanish army health services have a rule for prescriptions, they divided the body in three parts: the head, the body, and the emunctory system. The was a drug for each level, from top to bottom: Salycilate , Camphocarbonate,Permanganate. There were times when womanizers had in their bags a set of tubes for urethral irrigations and some bags of permanganate to prepare the solution to be used for this purpose. The times of mercury and arsenicals for syphilis are gone, but equally as alternatives to this were found, we hope some kind of an approach to overcome bacterian resistance will be found. We can’t forecast the advances in technology; as Niles Bohr said: “Making predictions is extremely difficult, specially about the future”. Imagine all the people living for today ?

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  4. 4. SingleHerpes 2:40 am 02/15/2012

    We need more tips on Sex education on youth and adult. Or more and more people have to go to STD dating sites like

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