Experts are warning that Australia is facing a gonorrhoea superbug crisis, with fears that the sexually transmitted infection is on the verge of becoming “untreatable” because of antibiotic resistance.
Cases of gonorrhoea rose in Australia by more than 60 per cent between 2008 and 2013.
In the past the disease could be cured by a simple oral dose of a common antibiotic.
However Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases president Cheryl Jones said that was no longer a guaranteed solution.
“We have been actively monitoring the effectiveness of antibiotics against gonococcus (gonorrhoea) in Australia and it’s very clearly a concerning and rising issue,” Professor Jones said.
“Just recently we have had an outbreak of cases in Newcastle and our strain of gonococcus in Australia has high rates of being resistant against what used to be our first line of therapy.”
Professor Jones said a strain of the disease found in more highly populated areas of Australia had evolved into a drug-resistant superbug.
“Fortunately for Australia in regional and remote areas, some other oral forms of penicillin [are] still quite effective,” she said.
“But in our major cities this is no longer the option — and this is a trend we’ve seen in the western Pacific.”
Professor Jones said doctors were being forced to give patients with the disease an expensive injection of a different antibiotic.
But she said there was a growing fear that gonorrhoea could evolve to become resistant to that treatment as well.
“The development of new antibiotics is always very slow and there are probably other antibiotics that are very toxic and would require hospital admission that may be up our sleeves,” she said.
“But to treat something like gonococcus, which is a sexually transmitted infection, we need to give something that a sexual health physician can give at the point of contact as one dose, so that we’re not trying to follow people up with multiple courses.”
Professor Jones said maintaining good sexual health was the best way to prevent the spread of this disease.
“For this specific situation, prevention is better than a cure,” she said.
“So very careful attention to using barrier protection to sexual intercourse, but also paying attention, if you have any symptoms, to get seen by your physician or sexual health practitioner so that this can be managed quickly and promptly.”
UK outbreak causes alarm
A strain of gonorrhoea that is resistant to drugs was recently detected in England, causing the country’s chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies, to write to all of the UK’s doctors and pharmacies.
She warned them of a superbug strain which she said was rapidly becoming resistant to older styles of antibiotic treatment.
Dr Davies wrote that it had “long been recognised that gonorrhoea is at risk of becoming an untreatable disease due to the continuing emergence of AMR (antimicrobial resistance).”
She wrote that since 2011 the approach in the UK and in other countries had been to recommend the use of a dual therapy of one injectable drug and one oral drug.