When I tell people that I research gonorrhea, they often wonder why I waste my time: “Isn’t Gonorrhea easily treatable with a quick antibiotic regimen?” The short answer: a tentative yes. Want the fuller answer? Keep reading…
Like many other bacteria, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the bacterium that causes gonorrhea (colloquially known as “the Clap”), has developed resistance to many of the antibiotics that we’ve thrown at it. In fact, it is now resistant to every antibiotic but one. Currently, only a single class of antibiotics—the cephalosporins—reliably treats gonorrhea…and treatment failures are beginning to occur with them in Europe and in other parts of the world (NY Times, 2011). It’s only a matter of time before cephalosporin-resistant Neisseria gonorrhea (known by the acronym “CRiNGe”) washes up on our own shores. Resistant gonorrhea translates to untreated gonorrhea, which can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease in females and epididymitis (swelling of the tube that connects the testicle and the vas deferens) in men, both of which can cause infertility. If the bacteria get into the bloodstream, it can be life-threatening. Gonorrhea also increases susceptibility to HIV infection (or, if you already are HIV+, it increases your chances of transmitting the virus to others) (CDC, 2010).
Consider too that gonorrhea is already the second most commonly reported infectious disease (CDC, 2011). And with some subgroups of the population experiencing rates of infection 20 or more times higher than others, CRiNGe doesn’t just raise the specter of a public health emergency but, given the dire consequences of untreated infection, also threatens to raise the stakes of existing health disparities (CDC, 2012).
Of course, antibiotic resistance isn’t just a problem with gonorrhea, but many other bacteria as well, Staphylococcus aureus—AKA Staph infection—being one of the more well-known examples (CDC, 2011). A primary driver of the development of resistance is the overuse of antibiotics: by healthcare providers, by animal agriculture, by patients… In one survey, 38% of Americans said they would want antibiotics if seeking treatment for the common cold (as a cold is the result of a virus and not a bacterium, it is, of course, not treatable with antibiotics). In the spirit of stemming the tide of antibiotic resistant bacteria, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has declared November 12-18, 2012 “Get Smart About Antibiotics Week” (CDC, 2012). Click the picture to the left to learn more. Get smart, and resist antibiotics before the superbugs do!