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Gonorrhea 'superbug' spreading; is it headed for U.S.?

June 07, 2012|By Rene Lynch

A new "superbug" strain of gonorrhea, seemingly resistant to all known antibiotics, could be headed for the United States as the sexually transmitted disease continues its global march.

There have been no known cases within the U.S. so far. But more countries, including Britain, Australia and France, are reporting instances of gonorrhea that are impervious to cephalosporin antibiotics -- the drugs normally used to snuff out the most serious cases.

“We certainly are worried about importation of resistance,” Dr. Gail Bolan, director of the STD Division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told The Times on Thursday. "It's time to take these trends seriously."

U.S. health experts are taking a multipronged approach to combating the superbug, she said, including early diagnosis, dual therapies, encouraging the pharmaceutical industry to develop new drugs and urging condom use among people who are sexually active.

“If individuals use condoms consistently and correctly, you can prevent the transmission of gonorrhea,” she said. The disease can be transmitted through oral sex as well, she cautioned.

It is estimated that there are more than 600,000 new cases of gonorrhea each year in the United States, she said. Many people have no idea they are infected because of a lack of obvious symptoms. 

Untreated, the disease can cause a number of health complications in women, including infertility. It can also increase a person's risk of contracting HIV and trigger other serious illnesses, including heart infections, she said. 

The prospect of a new superbug underscores longstanding concerns about widespread use of  antibiotics, even when unwarranted, and how it can create more powerful bacterial strains.

Manjula Lusti-Narasimhan, of the World Health Organization's department of reproductive health and research, said during a briefing in Geneva on Wednesday that more than 106 million people worldwide are newly infected with gonorrhea every year, Reuters reported. It was not immediately clear how many of those are diagnosed with the new superbug. But the sheer numbers add urgency to the issues, experts say.

Gonorrhea "is becoming a major public health challenge," Lusti-Narasimhan was quoted as saying. "The organism is what we term a superbug -- it has developed resistance to virtually every class of antibiotics that exists.... The health implications are significant."

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Join Rene Lynch on Google+ or Twitter. Email: rene.lynch@latimes.com

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