Super Bug: Is Gonorrhea Becoming The New AIDS?

Time was, if you came down with gonorrhea, you got a shot or took a pill. It was an annoyance more than anything else—so benign that they gave it a cute little nickname, “the clap.”

But now, all those millions of shots and pills later, more antibiotic-resistant strains of gonorrhea are emerging and edging the disease dangerously close to becoming untreatable.

On Thursday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines on how medical professionals should treat the 700,000 Americans who get gonorrhea each year. The new rules aren’t about better treatments or curbing outbreaks, though—they’re about keeping current treatment effective.

Back in the day, you could zap the clap with penicillin, tetracycline and other common antibiotics. But over the years gonorrhea has mutated to resist those drugs. And the frequency at which patients are given antibiotics for a host of other illnesses makes them less and less effective.

“A lot of this is occurring not because of treatment for gonorrhea but overuse for other infections, such as urinary tract infections, upper respiratory tract infections and so forth,” researcher Jonathan Zenilman told NPR.

There’s now essentially one drug left that scientists feel is an effective treatment: ceftriaxone. And its’ only a matter of time before it ceases to work, too. Cases of untreatable gonorrhea have already been found in Europe and Asia.

Unlike AIDS, though, gonorrhea is passed just as easily through vaginal sex as it is through anal sex. (Well, at least it’ll be an equal-opportunity epidemic.) In fact, since its most serious complications are life-threatening ectopic pregnancies and infertility, gay men would be the least devastated.

That’s not to minimize the seriousness of the situation—we just wonder how the religious right will paint the new strains of gonorrhea as God’s judgment on the gays.

Ironically, though, the AIDS epidemic is what might help us prevent a catastrophe:

Before AIDS, if you got a STD, your doctor gave you the cure and told you to tell your partners (wink, wink). But as AIDS cut a swath through society, learning how to tracking disease vectors became a life-or-death issue.

Before AIDS, no one used condoms (at least if our uncle is to believed). Now we’re all conditioned to wrap that pocket rocket in a jimmy hat.

Before AIDS, medical professionals were not always diligent about sterility—and nobody bothered putting on gloves unless you were getting a prostate exam. Now, the importance placed on antibacterial soap, latex protection and other tools will help control the spread of gonorrhea, which can transfer from a patient’s genitals to a nurse’s hands to her eye.

That’s where some experts say we’re headed: working to control the spread of gonorrhea instead of administering a simple cure. Sound familiar?

If there’s a takeaway from the CDC pulling the alarm bell, its that we have to remember that AIDS is not the only sexually-transmitted infection out there. And just because something can be taken care of with a shot—or a drug cocktail—today, doesn’t mean it won’t become a serious problem tomorrow.