Drug-Resistant Gonorrhea Spreading, Says World Health Organization

The World Health Organization is warning medical providers around the world about the potential spread of a drug-resistant form of gonorrhea, urging them to be vigilant in spotting the disease and taking steps to stop its spread.

The health agency plans to issue a "global action plan," hoping to raise awareness of the disease and encouraging research efforts to find a cure.

"This organism has basically been developing resistance against every medication we've thrown at it," Dr. Manjula Lusti-Narasimhan, a scientist in the WHO's department of sexually transmitted diseases told The Associated Press.

She added that in a couple of years, the bacterium will no longer respond to treatment with cephalosporin antibiotics, the drugs currently used to treat gonorrhea.

Cases of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea have so far been identified in Japan, United Kingdom, Australia, France, Sweden and Norway, the AP reported, but it's likely that there are undetected cases in other countries.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned about the rising rate of drug-resistant gonorrhea in an editorial published in the New England Journal of Medicine back in February. So far, there have been no reports of any cases of gonorrhea resistant to cephalosporins in the U.S., the agency says on its website, but it does have a surveillance system in place.

"There is much to do, and the threat of untreatable gonorrhea is emerging rapidly," the authors wrote.

In 2006, the prevalence of resistance to cephalosporins was about 0.1 percent, but by the middle of 2011, that number rose to 1.7 percent, the authors said. CDC's first warnings about drug resistance came in 2010.

The most alarming part of the story, they said, is that cephalosporins are the only remaining drugs of choice that work. They have to be taken along with two other antibiotics.

"A major component of the threat is that there really is no backup plan if - most likely when - these more resistant organisms become more prevalent," Dr. Kenneth Fife, an infectious disease expert and professor of medicine at Indiana University Medical School, told ABC News in response to the CDC's commentary. "There are very few new drugs that have activity against the gonococcus, no clinical trials to establish the efficacy of the few drugs that might have promise."

In many cases, there are no symptoms of gonorrhea, so an infected person can spread the disease without even knowing he or she has it.

Fife added that it's unlikely that experts will be able to prevent an outbreak from happening, so it's urgent to research and develop new treatments.

If the situation progresses to the point where we are in a "post-antibiotic era," Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said experts will be "hard-pressed to provide quick and effective therapy to patients."