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Super gonorrhea threat — it's a public health crisis that is on the horizon

Super gonorrhea threat — it's a public health crisis that is on the horizon
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A British man has been diagnosed with what some are calling the world’s “worst-ever” case of gonorrhea – a strain that is reportedly resistant to all antibiotics normally used to treat the disease.

This report is a confirmation of one of our greatest fears — untreatable gonorrhea could be on the very near horizon at a time when rates of the infection and of STDs overall are at record highs in this country. When we see a case like this in the U.K., it’s not a question of if, but when we’ll see it in the U.S. And once it’s here, it could spread quickly.

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Antibiotic resistance is one of the most significant health threats globally, and Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified antibiotic resistant gonorrhea as one of the three most urgent threats in the realm of drug resistance in the U.S. That’s in part because gonorrhea is so widespread — more than 800,000 infections are estimated to occur in the United States each year — and left untreated, it can cause serious and sometimes life-threatening health problems, particularly for women.

 

Gonorrhea is a smart bug. It has developed resistance to every class of antibiotic we have thrown at it. In the U.S., we are on our last line of options to treat gonorrhea — a combination of the antibiotics azithromycin and ceftriaxone. The case in the U.K. is the first confirmed case of gonorrhea that cannot be cured using this drug combination.

Officials in the UK say the man is now being treated with an alternative drug regimen, but there is no guarantee it will be successful. This should be a wakeup call to public health officials and policymakers. Untreatable gonorrhea in the U.S. is very close to becoming a reality — if it’s not here already.

Despite the hard work and dedication of public health officials and STD prevention practitioners across the country, the U.S. is woefully unprepared for this inevitability. If we don’t increase investment in preventing gonorrhea and other STDs, a public health crisis is all but certain.

For decades, federal investment in STD prevention, care, and research in the U.S. has been a fraction of what’s needed, and cuts to state and local STD program budgets in recent years have led to layoffs and slashed the services they can provide. This includes closures of STD clinics, often serving those most vulnerable to these infections.

To ready ourselves now, we need well-resourced STD programs around the country to track, treat, and prevent these potentially dangerous infections. We have a real chance now to get ahead of the curve, but as evidenced by this most recent report out of the UK, our time is running out.

The National Coalition of STD Directors is calling on Congress to allocate an additional $70 million to next year’s federal budget to support federal STD prevention at CDC. This much needed investment will allow STD programs to ready themselves to combat drug resistant gonorrhea, and to address the highest STD levels in history and the real and present threats of congenital syphilis and infertility.

Untreatable gonorrhea would be a public health catastrophe in the US, but that’s the path we’re on if something doesn’t change. As it stands, our public health system and STD programs are under resourced and ill-equipped to handle the influx of antibiotic resistant gonorrhea, but with investment and support of proactive prevention strategies we can hope to stem the tide.

This is no longer just a threat on the horizon. Antibiotic resistant gonorrhea morphed from a mere possibility, to inevitability in the U.S. And, if we wait until it hits our shores, we will already have missed our opportunity. Consider this case in the UK an alarm bell and a fair warning. We need to act now before it’s too late.

David C. Harvey is the executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors. NCSD represent state health department STD programs and community-based partners across 50 states, seven large cities and eight U.S. territories.