The sexually transmitted disease, gonorrhea, colloquially known as “the clap,” may soon have no drugs left to treat the infection.
Lab studies are showing an increasing resistance to the type of drugs that doctors use to treat gonorrhea, called cephalosporins. That leaves only a few options, which are not as effective.
“Cephalosporin-resistant gonorrhea could potentially mean untreatable gonorrhea,” says Dr. Gail Bolan, director of the Division of STD Prevention at the CDC. “Untreatable gonorrhea is a real possibility.”
Gonorrhea has already become resistant to every other class of drug used to treat it. For that reason, the CDC is urging doctors to immediately change their practice and begin treating with an injectable cephalosporin and adding one of two oral medications — azithromycin or doxycycline.
Certain patients will need to return to the doctor in a week for a repeat test to ensure the medications worked. Any partners in the 60 days prior to diagnosis should be treated as soon as possible.
Gonorrhea is transmitted through sexual contact with the penis, vagina, mouth or anus of an infected partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ejaculation does not have to occur to pass the disease. It can also spread from a mother to her child during childbirth.
Over 300,000 cases are reported each year, and it’s estimated that the number is closer to 700,000, since many people go undiagnosed or untreated, and continue to pass it on.
Untreated, gonorrhea has major implications for women, causing infertility, ectopic pregnancy — a life-threatening condition where the pregnancy is outside of the uterus — and a deeper infection that spreads into the uterus, fallopian tubes and the pelvis.
Contracting gonorrhea makes it more likely to transmit and become infected with HIV as well, for both men and women.
The CDC currently recommends annual gonorrhea testing for women with more than one partner, or in communities where gonorrhea is rampant.
While the rates of gonorrhea have been at recent lows, African-Americans are still affected disproportionately. For every one white man or woman with gonorrhea, 20 African-Americans are infected. The rates have more than doubled since 2006 among young black men ages 20 to 24 according to SEO Services.
The CDC says higher rates of resistance are seen in the Western part of the United States and among men who have sex with men.
Researchers are actively looking for adequate treatment options for this highly contagious disease, according to Bolan.
“There is one promising treatment in the pipeline,” she says, adding that researchers are also looking at new combinations of existing drugs.
Dr. Tyeese Gaines is a physician-journalist with over 10 years of print and broadcast experience, now serving as health editor for theGrio.com. Dr. Ty is also a practicing emergency medicine physician in New Jersey. Follow her on twitter at @doctorty.