Health officials from the World Health Organization are warning that doctors are running out of ways to treat one of the most common sexually transmitted infections.
Gonorrhea has officially become resistant to an entire class of antibiotics known as quinolones, reports NPR. Officials are changing the health protocol for the first time since 2003, recommending cephalosporins, a different class of antibiotic.
But simply switching to a new strain will only buy more time. The bacteria has been known to mutate, making all former treatments ineffective. In some countries, gonorrhea is already resistant to cephalosporin treatment.
The sexually transmitted infection affects more than 78 million people each year, according to Science magazine. Those infected may not notice any symptoms, but if left untreated, gonorrhea can cause infertility and brain or heart infections.
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends a dual therapy treatment of ceftriaxone and azithromycin, according to NPR, but the bacteria is expected to become resistant to that combination as well.
Officials believe an overuse of antibiotics for other infections leads to the mutation of the gonorrhea strain. In 2011, a super-resistant strain appeared in Japan. Without further research and new medication, these super-resistant strains could become the norm.
"If [gonorrhea] was a person, this person would be incredibly creative," said infectious disease researcher Jonathan Zenilman to NPR. "The bug has an incredible ability to adapt and just develop new mechanisms of resisting the impact of these drugs."
WHO researchers are now scrambling to keep up with gonorrhea's changing form and the U.S. is pouring millions into research.
"We will have to have new drugs in five years, I think," says Teodora Wi, from WHO's Department of Reproductive Health and Research, told Science.