A diagnosis of gonorrhea is never great news, but it’s about to get worse. The World Health Organization reports that the sexually transmitted infection is becoming much harder — and in some cases impossible — to treat.
“The bacteria that cause gonorrhoea are particularly smart. Every time we use a new class of antibiotics to treat the infection, the bacteria evolve to resist them,” said Dr. Teodora Wi, medical officer of human reproduction at WHO, in a press release.
After years of successfully treating the STI with antibiotics, some countries — particularly those that are higher-income and have been at the forefront of treatment — are finding that the existing medications are no longer effective.
Gonorrhea, which infects an estimated 78 million people each year, can affect the genitals, rectum and throat and is increasingly spread through oral sex. On top of that, according to WHO, complications of gonorrhea disproportionately affect women, causing pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy and infertility as well as an increased risk of HIV. It can also be passed onto a child during pregnancy.
The STI can be prevented with correct and consistent condom use as well as increased awareness of what the symptoms look like. These symptoms can include a thick green or yellow discharge from genitals, pain when urinating and bleeding between periods.
“To control gonorrhoea, we need new tools and systems for better prevention, treatment, earlier diagnosis, and more complete tracking and reporting of new infections, antibiotic use, resistance and treatment failures,” said Dr. Marc Sprenger, director of antimicrobial resistance at WHO, in a press release. “Specifically, we need new antibiotics, as well as rapid, accurate, point-of-care diagnostic tests — ideally, ones that can predict which antibiotics will work on that particular infection — and longer term, a vaccine to prevent gonorrhoea.”