U.S. CDC alarmed at rise of drug-resistant gonorrhea

WASHINGTON Thu Apr 12, 2007 5:10pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Gonorrhea in the United States is now resistant to all but one class of antibiotic drugs, threatening doctors' ability to treat the common sexually transmitted disease, officials said on Thursday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it will no longer recommend antibiotics called fluoroquinolones to combat the bacterial disease because of the emergence of drug-resistant strains in recent years that thwart them.

The CDC said there is no indication the bacterium that causes gonorrhea is becoming resistant to the remaining class of antibiotics it recommends, known as cephalosporins.

"Although the cephalosporins offer several potential options for treating gonorrhea, the lack of additional classes of antibiotics is a serious concern. There are currently no new drugs for gonorrhea in the drug development pipeline," Dr. John Douglas, director of the CDC's Division of Sexually Transmitted Diseases Prevention, told reporters in a conference call.

The CDC released data showing gonorrhea resistant to fluoroquinolones has become widespread among heterosexual men after previously becoming so among homosexual and bisexual men.

"While we have not seen any significant resistance to cephalosporins to date, any emerging resistance would be a significant public health concern. Clearly, there is an urgent need for new, effective medicines to treat gonorrhea as we are running out of options to treat this serious disease," Douglas added.

The CDC said it recommends an injectable drug called ceftriaxone, sold by Roche Pharmaceuticals as Rocephin, to treat genital, anal and throat gonorrhea.

Drug-resistant strains also are on the rise in other parts of the world, the CDC said. All types of bacteria quickly mutate and can develop resistance to medicines designed to kill them.

RISE OF 'SUPERBUGS'

Gonorrhea is an example of the rise of "superbugs" that have evolved to beat antibiotics that once vanquished them. Many experts decry the overuse of antibiotics, which can fuel the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria.

Douglas said gonorrhea previously became resistant to other antibiotics, penicillin and tetracycline, before starting to conquer the fluoroquinolones.

"Gonorrhea has now joined the list of other superbugs for which treatment options have become dangerously few," Dr. Henry Masur, president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America advocacy group, said in a statement.

More than 700,000 Americans get new gonorrheal infections annually, the CDC estimates.

Gonorrhea can cause serious and permanent health problems. The bacteria thrive in the warm, moist areas of a woman's reproductive tract and in the urine canal of men and women. They also grow in the mouth, throat, eyes and anus.

The agency released data from 26 U.S. cities involving the infection of men, showing that resistance to fluoroquinolones increased from less than 1 percent of cases in 2001 to 13.3 percent in the first half of 2006.

Among homosexual and bisexual men, 38 percent of gonorrhea cases were resistant in the first half of last year. Among heterosexual men, 6.7 percent were resistant.

The CDC said the highest reported rates of infection are among sexually active teenagers and young adults, and the disease is seen disproportionately among U.S. blacks. Proper condom use and sexual abstention can prevent the spread of the disease, the CDC said.

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