Scientists fear oral sex could be spreading new antibiotic resistant gonorrhea

Scientists fear oral sex could be spreading new antibiotic resistant gonorrhea
Colonies of bacteria in agar.
Source: Jarun Ontakrai/Shutterstock
Colonies of bacteria in agar.
Source: Jarun Ontakrai/Shutterstock

Antibiotic resistant gonorrhea is a major concern among health experts — and oral sex could be making the threat even more dire.

A new World Health Organization report that analyzed data from 77 countries found that gonorrhea has developed varying degrees of resistance to the antibiotics used to treat it. The WHO found a “widespread resistance to older and cheaper antibiotics” — and in some countries, there have been reports of gonorrhea that can’t be treated with any known antibiotics.

“The bacteria that cause gonorrhea are particularly smart,” Dr. Teodora Wi, Medical Officer, Human Reproduction, at the WHO said in the statement. “Every time we use a new class of antibiotics to treat the infection, the bacteria evolve to resist them.”

Wi added that the reported cases are just the “tip of the iceberg,” as some cases of untreatable gonorrhea may be going unreported.

A medical assistant with STI educational material
Source: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As Mic has previously reported, antibiotic resistant gonorrhea has been a growing concern for years. A 2015 outbreak of antibiotic resistant “super-gonorrhea” in the U.K. had medical officials there concerned that the STI was “at risk of becoming an untreatable disease.”

The WHO says that decreasing condom use, low detection rates and increased travel are all contributing to the spread of resistant gonorrhea.

Why is oral sex of particular concern?

Wi told the BBC on Friday that a particular act is making the so-called “super-gonorrhea” even more dangerous: oral sex.

As Wi explained, introducing the resistant gonorrhea to the bacteria that already live in the back of the throat can lead to even more resistance.

“When you use antibiotics to treat infections like a normal sore throat, this mixes with the Neisseria species in your throat and this results in resistance,” she said.

A Wyoming lab where technicians do testing for HIV, hepatitis, chlamydia and gonorrhea
Source: Matt Joyce/AP

What is gonorrhea?

Gonorrhea (also spelled gonorrhoea) is a common infection caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae, according to the WHO. It infects an estimated 78 million people a year, and it can be spread through vaginal, anal or oral sex. It can infect the genitals, rectum and throat.

Symptoms of gonorrhea can include burning and discolored discharge, but, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most women with gonorrhea don’t experience any symptoms, or have symptoms that are so mild that they may be mistaken for a vaginal or bladder infection.

Complications of gonorrhea infections “disproportionally” affect women and include ectopic pregnancy, infertility and pelvic inflammatory disease.

According to the WHO, the best way to prevent the spread of gonorrhea is to engage in safer sex practices and to make sure health workers are trained to effectively identify and treat STIs. But experts say it’s essential that scientists develop new ways to fight gonorrhea as antibiotics become less and less effective.

In the statement from the WHO, Dr. Marc Sprenger, Director of Antimicrobial Resistance, said “We need new antibiotics, as well as rapid, accurate, point-of-care diagnostic tests — ideally, ones that can predict which antibiotics will work on that particular infection – and longer term, a vaccine to prevent gonorrhea.”

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Anna Swartz

Anna is a staff writer for Mic covering breaking news. She can be reached at aswartz@mic.com.

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