The common sexually-transmitted disease gonorrhoea is becoming nearly impossible to treat due to antibiotic resistance, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned.
"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, Human Reproduction, at WHO.
Data collected from 77 countries revealed that the STD has taken on widespread resistance to older and cheaper antibiotics, even in high-income locations.
"These cases may just be the tip of the iceberg, since systems to diagnose and report untreatable infections are lacking in lower-income countries where gonorrhoea is actually more common."
That could be problematic for the nearly 78 million people infected with the STD, which rears complications that disproportionately affect women, leading to pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy, infertility, and an increased risk of HIV.
WHO attributed the disease's antibiotic resistance to decreased condom use, increased urbanization, poor infection detection rates and inadequate treatment.
Despite increased levels of gonorrhoea, there are only three new drug candidates and there are still in various stages of clinical development.
Adding to the issue is a lack of interest by commercial pharmaceutical companies to develop new antibiotics to treat gonorrhoea. Unlike medicines for chronic diseases, treatment for gonorrhoea is relatively short, with only drugs taken for short periods of time. That, coupled with the drug's increased antibiotic resistance, means that the supply of new drugs constantly needs to be replenished.
“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. “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.”