Gonorrhea is an extremely common infection. More than 320,000 cases were reported in the United States in 2011. Experts suspect that the actual number of infections is closer to 700,000 because the infection often has no symptoms, Kirkcaldy said.
If left untreated, gonorrhea can cause infertility in both men and women and increases a person's susceptibility to HIV. It can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, a painful condition that causes scarring in a woman's reproductive tract that increases the risk of ectopic pregnancy (a pregnancy outside the uterus), according to the CDC. Allen added that untreated gonorrhea in pregnant women can lead to an eye infection or even blindness in newborns.
Since the 1940s, gonorrhea has been outsmarting the antibiotics used to treat it. Gonorrhea is resistant to sulfonamides, penicillins, tetracyclines and fluoroquinolones, according to Kirkcaldy.
After hearing anecdotal reports that gonorrhea was now developing resistance to the last oral antibiotic available, and hearing from Japanese researchers that they were starting to see cefixime resistance, Allen and her colleagues reviewed nearly 300 past cases of gonorrhea infection.
From that sample, 133 came back to be retested. Nine people (6.8 percent) were found to be cefixime-resistant. That leaves ceftriaxone as the only antibiotic to which gonorrhea hasn't developed a significant resistance. Given that it's from the same family of antibiotics, however, Allen said resistance to ceftriaxone is likely inevitable. The only real question is how long it might take.
Kirkcaldy echoed the same urgency.
"We need to prevent untreatable gonorrhea as a reality, and that means we urgently need new treatment options," he said. "The antibiotic pipeline has been drying up. We need to jumpstart research and investment to develop new drugs and new drug combinations."
On an individual level, he advised prevention efforts. "Use condoms
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