Global perspective Human stories

UN health agency warns of risks from growing resistance to gonorrhoea treatment

Female condom.
IRIN/Julie Vandal
Female condom.

UN health agency warns of risks from growing resistance to gonorrhoea treatment

The United Nations health agency today warned that millions of people with gonorrhoea may be at risk of running out of treatment options unless urgent action is taken.

“We are very concerned about recent reports of treatment failure from the last effective treatment option – the class of cephalosporin antibiotics – as there are no new therapeutic drugs in development,” said Dr. Manjula Lusti-Narasimhan, of the World Health Organization's (WHO) Department of Reproductive Health and Research, in a news release. “If gonococcal infections become untreatable, the health implications are significant.”

Already several countries – including Australia, France, Japan, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom – are reporting cases of resistance to cephalosporin antibiotics, according to WHO. Every year an estimated 106 million people are infected with gonorrhoea, which is transmitted sexually.

In new guidance issued today, WHO is calling for greater vigilance on the correct use of antibiotics and more research into alternative treatment regimens for gonococcal infections.

The agency’s Global Action Plan to control the spread and impact of antimicrobial resistance in Neisseria gonorrhoea also calls for increased monitoring and reporting of resistant strains as well as better prevention, diagnosis and control of gonococcal infections.

Gonorrhoea makes up one quarter of the four major curable sexually-transmitted infections. Since the development of antibiotics, the pathogen has developed resistance to many of the common antibiotics used as treatment, including penicillin, tetracyclines and quinolones.

“Gonorrhoea is becoming a major public health challenge, due to the high incidence of infections accompanied by dwindling treatment options,” Dr. Lusti-Narasimhan said. “The available data only shows the tip of the iceberg. Without adequate surveillance we won’t know the extent of resistance to gonorrhoea and without research into new antimicrobial agents, there could soon be no effective treatment for patients.”

Antimicrobial resistance is caused by the unrestricted access to antimicrobials, overuse and poor quality of antibiotics, as well as natural genetic mutations within disease organisms. In addition, gonorrhoea strains tend to retain genetic resistance to previous antibiotics even after their use has been discontinued.

According to WHO, the extent of this resistance worldwide is not known due to a lack of reliable data for gonorrhoea in many countries and insufficient research.

Untreated gonococcal infection can cause health problems in men, women and newborn babies, including: infection of the urethra, cervix and rectum; infertility in both men and women; a significantly increased risk of HIV infection and transmission; ectopic pregnancy, spontaneous abortion, and stillbirths and premature deliveries.