Alarms are being sounded on Capitol Hill about the emerging problem of an untreatable gonorrhea “superbug,” and tens of millions of dollars are being sought to prepare for an expected outbreak in the U.S.
“Experts agree that it’s not a matter of if gonorrhea-resistance will hit, it’s a matter of when it will hit,” said William Smith, executive director of the National Coalition for STD Directors.
Mr. Smith will be at two congressional briefings Friday to ask for $53.5 million in public-health funding to help local health departments prepare for the expected outbreak.
Around 320,000 new gonorrhea infections were reported in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, the agency estimates that there are 820,000 gonorrhea cases, since it can be asymptomatic, especially in women and when the infection is in the throat or rectum.
Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted disease that has been known since medieval times. Sometimes known as “the clap,” the infection can result in painful sores and genital discharge, and is associated with ectopic pregnancies and sterility in both men and women. It also raises the risk for HIV because the lesions permit the AIDS-causing virus easier access to the bloodstream.
Gonorrhea is especially common among people under age 24.
The disease became curable in the 1940s when penicillin and other antibiotics were introduced. Since then, the medical world has created more new drugs that killed the ever-mutating gonorrhea bacteria.
But a gonorrhea “superbug” that is resistant to virtually all antibiotics has appeared in isolated cases around the world, and laboratory data is showing that the oral antibiotic cefixime is losing its power to cure gonorrhea, the CDC said last August.
As a result, the CDC announced that from now on, gonorrhea infections would be treated with a shot of ceftriaxone — fortified by another antibiotic, such as azithromycin or doxycycline — to prolong the effectiveness of the last class of drugs.
The change is a “critical pre-emptive strike to preserve ceftriaxone, our last proven treatment option,” Dr. Kevin Fenton, former director of the National Center for HIV/AIDs, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention, said at the time.
According to remarks prepared for Friday’s congressional briefings, Mr. Smith plans to talk about how spending the $53 million now will help state and local health departments prepare for the emergence of drug-resistant gonorrhea.
“If we aren’t prepared when it happens, we will have a serious public health crisis our hands, with only a lack of attention and investment to blame,” said Mr. Smith. These agencies are the only institutions that can quickly identify and respond to an outbreak of drug-resistant gonorrhea, he said, but they are significantly underfunded.
To date, Mr. Smith added, there’s been “no treatment failure” in the U.S., but there was a worrisome case in Hawaii — treatments finally worked in that case, he said. In 2012, Congress passed a law to encourage research and development of antibiotics for a number of diseases, including gonorrhea.