New gonorrhea strain alarms experts

An article in the Vancouver Sun by Charlie Fidelman on the 11 July 2011 explains that a sex worker in Japan  has been diagnosed with a new, mutant strain of gonorrhea. This is alarming because it is a "superbug" which doesn't respond to antibiotic treatment.

Antibiotic-resistant 'superbug' has no known treatment, could spread worldwide

Worried scientists have confirmed with the World Health Organization that a new, mutant strain of gonorrhea that is resistant to antibiotics has been isolated in a sex trade worker in Japan.

Its the first strain of the common sexually transmitted infection once easily treated with penicillin and other antibiotics has mutated into a "superbug" able to withstand all forms of known treatment, said Swedish researcher Magnus Unemo, who recently isolated the strain. He will be presenting his team's findings today at a meeting of the international conference on sexually transmitted diseases in Quebec City.

"If it spreads now, we don't know what should be the recommended treatment," Unemo said.

An entire symposium at the meeting of the International Society for Sexually Transmitted Diseases Research -which attracts experts from microbiology, virology and immunobiology, behavioural sciences, public health and prevention policy -will be devoted to the subject.

A smart bacteria, Neisseria gonorrhoeae has shown that it can adapt and evolve every 10 to 15 years, quickly becoming impervious to current frontline drug therapy, explained Unemo, of the Swedish Reference Laboratory for Pathogenic Neisseria, Orebro University Hospital, Sweden.

Historically, new strains have emerged in the western Pacific region, Japan or Korea, and then rapidly spread globally.

This new strain, dubbed H041, has proven resistance to the last remaining treatment option available, cephalosporins, a fourth generation class of antibiotics.

Unemo warns of a "future era of untreatable gonorrhea."

"Highly resistant" gonorrhea is a major threat to public health, Unemo said.

"It's really worrying from a public health perspective. It's shown its capacity to act as a superbug. We need to focus on finding new strategies for treatment," Unemo said in a telephone interview last week, during a break from meetings with experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta, Georgia.

According to the CDC, there are an estimated 700,000 new cases of gonorrhea in the U.S. each year.

To date, the new strain has been isolated in one sex worker, Unemo said. "It's really hard to know how far this strain has spread.

"Due to this situation, the World Health Organization has assured us that it will work on the issue of coming up with a global response plan -a huge challenge for the future," Unemo said, starting with surveillance of the new disease, better infection prevention approach, treatment options such as combining of two or more antibiotics, development of a fast and effective drug, and ideally, a vaccine.

Health Canada is also taking the matter seriously and has organized a workshop on the matter at the conference.

Gonorrhea can show up without symptoms in 50 per cent of infected women. Most infected men find it extremely painful (about two to five per cent do not have symptoms) and describe it as like urinating razor blades.

Untreated, gonorrhea can lead to severe, life-threatening complications if it spreads to the blood and the joints, in both men and women.

Untreated women run the risk of developing pelvic inflammatory disease, chronic pelvic pain, and ectopic pregnancies, as well as passing the infection to their babies during birth, which can cause life-threatening infections and blindness.

Gonorrhea is one of the most commonly circulating STDs, which is why this discovery is so important, said Dr. Michel Alary, president of the International Society for Sexually Transmitted Diseases Research and researcher at the Centre hospitalier affilie universitaire de Quebec.

"The big fear is that if the strain becomes dominant, there will be a real problem," Alary said. "It's not treatable."

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