‘Superbug gonorrhea’: What you should know about untreatable STIs

You’ve heard about superbugs and sexually transmitted infections, but now health officials are warning of a ‘superbug’ STI that’s surfaced and may be spreading via oral sex.

The World Health Organization says that at least three people worldwide have contracted a totally untreatable “superbug” strain of gonorrhea. That’s only a handful of people but the concern is that they’re spreading the mutant STI through sex.

The world renowned agency is calling it a “very serious situation.” It’s “only a matter of time” before last-ditch antibiotics to fight gonorrhea will be useless.

“Gonorrhea is a very smart bug. Every time you introduce a new type of antibiotic to treat it, this bug develops resistance to it,” Teodora Wi, a human reproduction specialist at the WHO, said.

There hasn’t been a single case of “superbug” STIs in Canada, but it doesn’t mean they won’t land on our doorstep, experts warn.

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READ MORE: Untreatable ‘superbug’ gonorrhea found in 3 patients, WHO warns

“We’re all familiar with STIs and there are the big three in Canada – syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea,” said Jason Tetro, a Canadian microbiologist and bestselling author, told Global News. “Gonorrhea has always been the troublesome one – 40 years ago we found out it has the ability to resist penicillin. By 2011, we heard of the first case of gonorrhea resistant to all antibiotics.”

Dr. Rob Dmytryshyn, a Women’s College Hospital family physician says treating gonorrhea has been a moving target for some time. “We’ve had to adjust our treatments – we used to use different classes of antibiotics but over time we’ve had increasing failure rates.”

Here’s what you need to know about superbugs and untreatable STIs.

What do we know about ‘superbug gonorrhea’?

Global health officials zeroed in on three specific cases – one in Japan, France and Spain. In the trio of cases, patients had strains of gonorrhea that were resistant to all antibiotics.

“There are cases that can infect others. It can be transmitted,” Wi told reporters in a telephone briefing Friday.

“And 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 gonorrhea is actually more common,” she warned.

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READ MORE: We need new antibiotics. Who’s going to pay for them?

Keep in mind, STI “superbugs” differ from handfuls of superbugs that fester in hospitals and other health-care facilities, such as CRE (carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae) and NDM-1 (New Delhi Metallo-beta-Lactamase-1).

These superbugs are bringing the medical community to its knees. They’ve able to survive some of the world’s last resort antibiotics to treat serious infections.

The trouble with STIs is that, in some cases, the infection is innocuous.

“A big part of the problem is many STIs may not give away any symptoms to patients. People may not know they have it and may be transmitting it unknowingly, including this superbug one,” Dmytryshyn said.

What happens if you contract a “superbug” STI and how do you prevent it from happening?

Superbug STIs aren’t a death sentence unlike other antibiotic-resistant bugs, for starters. But it’s unclear how long symptoms could last for, Tetro says.

Symptoms include painful urination, pain or swelling in the testicles, and discharge from the tip of the penis in men. Women also encounter vaginal discharge, painful urination, vaginal bleeding between periods and painful intercourse.

READ MORE: These are the 12 bacteria the world should be gravely worried about

“When you’re faced with an infection like this it can end up in other parts of the body — the rectum, eyes, more and more in the throat, and in your joints,” Tetro said.

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“You no longer have a short-term infection. You’re dealing with a long-term condition that could end up causing pain and troubles with functioning normally,” he warned.

The WHO has been tracking drug-resistant gonorrhea and other STIs for years. A study from 2009 to 2014 found there was a widespread resistance to first-line medicine, increasing resistance to second-line antibiotics and emerging resistance to “last resort” treatments. Now resistance is in full swing.

The last ditch antibiotics are called ESCs or extended-spectrum cephalosporins. Now, ESCs are the only single antibiotics strong enough to fight gonorrhea. Even then resistance has been reported in 50 countries.

READ MORE: New superbug renders antibiotics powerless

Your best bet at avoiding “superbug” STIs is to stick to good old fashioned safe sex, orally and through intercourse.

“The takeaway is if you don’t know your [sexual] partner well, wrap it up. The best thing to do is ensure you’re using barrier protection,” Tetro said.

What about new antibiotics?

Superbugs are a grave concern to Canadian and global health officials alike. In February, the WHO warned that the world is on the cusp of a “post-antibiotic” era with dozens of bacteria — not just sexually transmitted bugs — growing resistant to all medications we have on hand.

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In his final days as Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Gregory Taylor told Global News in 2016 that superbugs were of utmost concern to him.

We’re nearing a reality in which operations can’t happen or routine infections could kill people, he warned.

“This is public enemy No. 1,” Dr. Gerry Wright, lead researcher and McMaster University scientist, said of superbugs.

Almost 90 years ago, Scottish researcher Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin and ushered in a wave of new medications, all derived from bacteria in the soil beneath our feet.

READ MORE: Antibiotic resistant bacteria found in squid sold in Canadian grocery store

Suddenly, pneumonia, tuberculosis, blood infections — ailments that once killed entire communities at a time — became manageable. Antibiotics were dubbed “wonder drugs”: they revolutionized medical care and extended life expectancy.

But we’re still relying on old innovations: half of the antibiotics prescribed to sick patients today were discovered in the 1950s, Canadian research suggests.

Wright says there have been virtually no new antibiotics discovered since the 1980s.

READ MORE: We need new antibiotics. Who’s going to pay for them?

“We’re at a very precarious point simply because we don’t have any new drugs coming on board,” Wright told Global News.

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Read the WHO’s full report.

  • With files from Kate Kelland, Reuters

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