WHO warns new antibiotics needed urgently after rise of resistant gonorrhoea

10 Jul 2017

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Fears of an impending catastrophe are growing, with the WHO warning that new antibiotics are needed following the spread of a drug-resistant gonorrhoea.

Without the development of a new batch of antibiotic strains in the coming decades, the world could be left facing catastrophe, with even the most basic of infections becoming untreatable as viruses evolve to become resistant.

That is the message from the World Health Organisation (WHO) after it revealed that a new gonorrhoea strain found in 77 countries is, in many cases, completely untreatable with every antibiotic known to science.

Gonorrhoea is estimated to affect around 78m people each year globally and can infect a person’s genitals, rectum and throat, with complications arising from it largely found in women.

For example, it can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy and infertility, as well as an increased risk of HIV, with its continued spread being attributed to lack of access or use of condoms, and increased urbanisation.

‘These cases may just be the tip of the iceberg’

“The bacteria that cause gonorrhoea are particularly smart. Every time we use a new class of antibiotics to treat the infection, the bacteria evolve to resist them,” said Dr Teodora Wi, medical officer of human reproduction at the WHO.

“These cases may just be the tip of the iceberg, since systems to diagnose and report untreatable infections are lacking in lower-income countries where gonorrhoea is actually more common.”

Data gathered on this latest gonorrhoea strain has found that the most affected antibiotic is ciprofloxacin, with 97pc of countries surveyed reporting that was ineffective. More worrying is that even last-resort treatments such as injectable ceftriaxone were found to be untreatable in 66pc of cases.

New treatments should be accessible to everyone

For the WHO, the major concern is that only three new antibiotic candidates are in development: solithromycin, zoliflodacin and gepotidacin.

This is because – despite a future of untreatable infections – pharmaceutical companies favour producing medication that requires long-term use and will be taken regularly, whereas antibiotics require only short-term use with new antibiotics needing constant development.

“In the short term, we aim to accelerate the development and introduction of at least one of these pipeline drugs, and will evaluate the possible development of combination treatments for public health use,” said Dr Manica Balasegaram, director of the Global Antibiotic Research and Development Partnership.

“Any new treatment developed should be accessible to everyone who needs it, while ensuring it’s used appropriately so that drug resistance is slowed as much as possible.”

This latest news of a resistant strain will come as little surprise to some, particularly an Irish-led team of EU researchers, which revealed in March that we are now, more than ever, at risk of a global pandemic event that could potentially cost millions of lives.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic