The medical community is sounding the alarm after a man in the U.K. has become the first patient with a type of gonorrhea infection that is not responding to the antibiotics commonly used to cure it.
Doctors are calling it the “worst-ever” case of the sexually transmitted disease, which hits approximately 78 million men and women every year.
According to the BBC, the unidentified man had a regular partner but picked up the disease earlier this year after a sexual encounter with a woman in South East Asia.
‘These cases may just be the tip of the iceberg’
“This is the first time a case has displayed such high-level resistance to both of these drugs and to most other commonly used antibiotics,” said Dr. Gwenda Hughes, from Public Health England, to the BBC.
For years now, doctors and scientists have been warning that the bacteria that cause gonorrhea are becoming more resistant to antibiotics.
“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, Human Reproduction, at World Health Organization (WHO).
Based on data pulled from 77 countries, WHO has found widespread resistance to older and cheaper antibiotics. Some countries – particularly high-income ones, where surveillance is best – are finding cases of the infection that are untreatable by all known antibiotics.
“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,” Dr. Wi said in a report last year.
The WHO lists decreasing condom use, increased urbanization and travel, poor infection detection rates and inadequate or failed treatment as contributors to the increase.
If left untreated, gonorrhea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy, stillbirths, severe eye infections in babies and infertility in both men and women.
In the United States, there are approximately 300,000 reported cases of gonorrhea each year. But because infected people often have no symptoms, the actual number of cases is likely closer to 600,000, according to Reuters.