A ‘super strain’ of gonorrhea circulating in the US is so potent it can evade many antibiotics used to treat it, experts say

A so-called “super strain” of gonorrhea — against which many types of antibiotics are less effective or ineffective at all — has been identified for the first time in the US, health officials said Thursday, raising further concerns that a post-antibiotic era is approaching.

The case, identified in Massachusetts, was successfully treated with ceftriaxone, an antibiotic recommended to treat the disease, state health officials said in a press release. A higher-than-recommended dose was not necessary to clear the infection, a public health spokesman said Fortune, although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently doubled the recommended dose.

The newly identified strain showed reduced susceptibility to three types of antibiotics and resistance to another three, including penicillin. It is the first case in the U.S. in which all recommended drugs were less effective or completely ineffective, the state health department said in a bulletin to clinicians on Thursday.

The case serves as “an important reminder that strains of gonorrhea in the U.S. are increasingly unresponsive to a limited arsenal of antibiotics,” health officials said in a statement.

The US is experiencing “an increasing epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases,” Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. Fortune, with some experts calling the problem a “hidden epidemic.”

Cases of gonorrhea — an STD that often shows no signs but can lead to genital discharge, burning during urination, sores and rashes, among other symptoms — rose 131% nationally between 2009 and 2021, according to public health officials. While STI transmission rates in the U.S. fell during the early months of the pandemic, they rose later in the year, with cases of gonorrhea and syphilis eventually surpassing 2019 levels, the CDC said.

Another similar strain of gonorrhea, with reduced response to ceftriaxone and another antibiotic, was also recently identified in Massachusetts, health officials noted. And a similar case was recently seen in Nevada, although that strain remained sensitive to at least one type of antibiotic.

The new species has been previously reported in Asia-Pacific countries and the United Kingdom in recent years, Massachusetts health officials said. It is similar to a case previously seen in Nevada, although that strain remained sensitive to at least one class of antibiotics.

The GGD did not immediately respond Fortune ask if the species, or similar species, have been identified elsewhere in the US

‘A scary proposal’

The Massachusetts case highlights growing concerns about antimicrobial resistance, one of the top 10 public health threats facing humanity, according to the World Health Organization. Antimicrobial resistance occurs when bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites evolve over time, become less responsive to drugs, making infections increasingly difficult or impossible to treat.

“We’re seeing this antibiotic era turn into a post-antibiotic era,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota. Fortune. “That’s a scary proposition.”

Efforts are being made worldwide to slow the rise of resistance because it is an impossible process to stop, he says. But little is being done in this regard or to develop new treatments. A November 2021 WHO statement called the clinical pipeline of new antimicrobials “dry”.

Two years later, according to Benjamin, that pipeline is still dry. As an increasing number of treatments become ineffective due to antimicrobial resistance, “we need to use ‘more potent drugs’ with more side effects,” he says. “At a certain point we have nothing useful to deal with [gonorrhea]]of.”

It wasn’t that long ago that “kids were dying all the time from bacterial infections that we wouldn’t think about these days — they’re easy to treat,” Osterholm tells WebMD. Fortune.

“Our great-grandparents grew up in a pre-antibiotic era,” he says. “My generation, and that of my children, grew up for a large part in an antibiotic era. It is clear that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren – at least in many parts of the world – will live in a post-antibiotic era.”

Antimicrobial resistance, like climate change and preparing for the next pandemic, are insidious issues that are relatively easy to ignore — until they’re gone, he warns.

“One of the challenges right now is to imagine this new world and do something about it,” he says. “We talk about it, think about it, have a few meetings about it. But in the end, what have we really done to change the course of the future?”

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