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Gonorrhea Could Join Growing List of Untreatable Diseases


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.


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

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