Gonorrhea , a sexually transmitted disease once quickly cured by a bout of penicillin, is becoming increasingly resistant to typical treatments. But a new study suggests that prudent use of antibiotics could help keep super-gonorrhea at bay.
"It gives us a glimmer of hope," Dr. William Schaffner, chair of prevention at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said of the study that linked the scaled back use of antibiotics called cephalosporins to a reduction in antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea.
"Gonorrhea used to be so susceptible to penicillin that the joke was all you had to do was wave the penicillin vial at the patient," said Schaffner, who was not involved with the study. "We're in a corner now. Our options are very few. But there's hope."
Gonorrhea isn't the only germ evading our arsenal of antibiotics, according to Schaffner. Other common infections from staph A to salmonella are becoming harder and harder to treat.
"The more antibiotics we use, the more we persuade the bacteria to become resistant," he said. "When this happens -- and it's happening with unfortunate frequency -- doctors have much greater difficulty finding an antibiotic that will work to fight the infection."
Here, a list of the scariest superbugs at home and abroad.
|The Original Superbug: Staphylococcus Aureus|
Almost everyone's heard of MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. But few people understand just how pervasive the original superbug has become.
Roughly one in 50 people carries a strain of staph resistant to common antibiotics, according to the National Institutes of Health. If the bug invades a wound, it can cause an infection that's minor and localized, as in a pimple, or serious and widespread, involving the heart, lungs, blood and bones.
"MRSA continues to be the biggest threat because it could become more widespread," Schaffner said.
MRSA infections usually strike elderly hospital inpatients or nursing home residents. But the number of MRSA cases out in the community is on the rise, according to the NIH. It can spread between people working out at the gym through contaminated towels or equipment, and has even been passed between children at day care facilities.
|The Sexually-Transmitted Infections: Gonorrhea and Chlamydia|
Super Chlamydia may sound funny, but it's no joke. Antibiotic resistance means sexually transmitted infections that once were cured with a few pills now could require treatments that are more invasive.
"We might have to rely on intravenous or intramuscular treatments, meaning the patient would have to come in or someone would have to go to their home," Schaffner said. "These people don't want to be recognized in their home environment as having one of these infections, which a visit would kind of announce. So people will begin avoiding treatment. You have a spiraling series of problems."
|The Hospital Lurkers: Clostridium Difficile and Acinetobacter|
Doctors have long been battling a group of six hospital-borne pathogens dubbed ESKAPE: Enterococcus, Staphylococcus, Klebsiella, Acinetobacter, Pseudomonas and Enterobacter. Now those six bugs are escaping antibiotics.
"These organisms were present in hospitals 20 years ago," said Dr. John Bartlett, chief of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. "Now we've used so many antibiotics to treat them, they've been trained to become resistant."
The bacteria invade vulnerable bodies through hospital equipment, like surgical implants and central lines.
"When people come into the hospital, they often get metal put in them, or plastic lines. All of those foreign bodies [make someone] susceptible to infection," Bartlett said. "We can't help it. It's nobody's fault."
|The Food Borne Bugs: Escherichia Coli and Salmonella|
The bacteria behind food poisoning are becoming drug resistant, partly because farm animals are fed antibiotics to promote growth.
"Eighty percent of antibiotics in the U.S. are given to animals, not people," Bartlett said. "Now we're tracing some of these antibiotic resistant infections back to the farm."
In 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that drug-resistant strains of E. coli causing urinary tract infections in women could be traced back to chickens fed antibiotics.
"E. coli is the most common cause of simple urinary tract infections, which we can treat very quickly and easily today. But as it becomes resistant, what was once simple [to treat] will become complicated," Schaffner said.
The European Union has banned antibiotics as growth-promoters. But the U.S. continues to lag behind, only last year restricting the use of antibiotics called cephalosporins in livestock.
"Quite frankly, I think that's embarrassing," Bartlett said. "Nobody's talking about the U.S. being very aggressive or successful in dealing with this problem."
|The Global Threat: Tuberculosis|
Tuberculosis kills nearly 1.4 million people each year worldwide. And now the disease, once curable with antibiotics, is becoming resistant to multiple drugs.
"Among the world's 12 million cases of tuberculosis in 2010, WHO estimates that 650,000 involved multidrug-resistant TB strains," said Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization.
Treating multidrug-resistant TB is extremely complicated, "typically requiring two years of medication with toxic and expensive medicines, some of which are in constant short supply. Even with the best of care, only slightly more than 50 percent of these patients will be cured," Chan said.
Although most cases of multidrug resistant TB are in developing countries, there were 92 U.S. cases reported in 2011, according to WHO data.
"We live in a very small world today," said Schaffner, explaining how travelers can import antibiotic resistant bacteria from developing countries. "It's a very small word and the bacteria do not need passports."