This past week, the internet was infected with viral reports of a new strain of "sex superbug from Hell," which is resistant to all antibiotics and can be potentially deadlier than AIDS. Spreading from Japan to Hawaii, California, and Norway, a CNBC article reported with undue alarm that this particular strain of gonorrhea has the power to "put someone into septic shock and death in a matter of days."
But the reports of our imminent death have been greatly exaggerated. "The sky is not falling — yet,” said Dr. Kimberly Workowski, professor of infectious disease at Emory University. Actually, the H11S8 bug, which we are suddenly all ruffled up about, has already "been a known problem for a while."
The first cases of H11S8 were found in Hawaii in May 2011. They were called a "superbug" because of their resistance to the generic antibiotic Azithromycin. However, no one has died of H11S8. Even though H11S8 is resistant to Azithromycin, it can be treated with ceftriaxone, a last-resort antibiotic. In 2009, there was one case of H041, a rare strain of gonnorhea, discovered in a 31-year-old Japanese sex worker, which was also treated with a ceftriaxone injection. This strain has not been detected anywhere else in the world since 2009. There have also been no reported deaths from HO41.
So what's all the hullaballoo about? CNBC had to print a correction yesterday, stating that there has been no spread of H041 from Japan to other countries, and the cases found in Hawaii were cured: "To date, there have been no treatment failures reported in the U.S."
Nevertheless, the National Coalition of STD Directors has called the situation an emergency. Last week, at a briefing on Capitol Hill, Executive Director William Smith, asked Congress for $54 million in immediate funding to find an antibiotic for H041 and to conduct a public awareness campaign.
Even though there’s already an antibiotic for H041, it's not completely unreasonable to declare a state of emergency and ask for governmental funding for medical research. Though we've been experiencing an all-time historic low in the incidence of gonorrhea since the Middle Ages, recently, parts of the U.S. has seen dramatic increases in the disease.
According to the CDC, there were 322,000 cases of gonorrhea reported in the U.S. in 2011, which comprises 10.3 percent of the total U.S. population, making it the country’s second most commonly reported infection. However, since about half of women and 5 percent of men with gonorrhea show no symptoms, and fewer than that number report, the estimated actual numbers were actually more than 800,000. The CDC states that there has been a 74% increase in gonorrhea in Utah in the year 2012; and in Minnesota, the number of cases has risen by 35%. From 2010 to 2011, there has been an increase of reported cases of gonorrhea in 30 states, plus the District of Columbia. Gonorrhea infection has quickly mutated, and in a span of a few years, has become resistant to most antibiotics except for cephalosporins, which is our last line of defense.
"There is a possibility that if we don't do something, then it could become untreatable by 2015," stated Professor Cathy Ison, head of the National Reference Laboratory for Gonorrhea in the UK.
The problem with superbugs becoming resistant to antibiotic treatments is actually a very real, serious concern. One big problem is that there are not enough pharmaceutical companies investing in research and development for new antibiotics. Since 1998, only four new antibiotics were approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and currently only seven antibiotics are in an advanced stage of development, with more research needed before they can be approved for use.
The Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) published a study stating that the number of pharmaceutical companies conducting research on antibiotics is down from 11 to four: GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Merck. Developing new antibiotics is not as good for the bottom line as developing more expensive drugs, such as HIV medication, and large drug producers such as Johnson and Johnson have publicly reduced or stopped research funding for new antibiotics.
Furthermore, there is a big problem with the way that antibiotics are used in American agriculture. According to the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, 80% of the total consumption of antibiotics in the United States is used on livestock — about 30 million pounds in 2011, which is a 22% rise from 2005. Due to this abuse of antibiotics, there has been a dramatic increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria in 2011, found in 81% of raw ground turkey, 69% of raw pork chops, 55% of raw ground beef, and 39% of raw chicken bought over the counter.
"We are in a crisis situation," says Dr. Cesar Arias, an associate professor of infectious diseases from the University of Texas Health Science center.
Medical experts cite that the main cause for antibiotic resistance in the United States is due to the way that patients are given doses of antibiotics for common viral ailments, such as colds and the flu — ailments that can not be treated with antibiotics anyways. According to the American College of Physicians, of the 190 million doses of antibiotics given in U.S. hospitals every day, only half are necessary.
Superbugs are indeed quickly becoming resistant to our antibiotics, and becoming more dangerous. But sexually-transmitted diseases are not the only ones we should be wary of. MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), the first bacterial infection to be labeled a superbug, is a skin infection exacerbated by the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers, which only serve to weaken the immune system against diseases like these.
Therefore it's not entirely a bad thing that there is panic spreading all over the internet this week about this legendary sex superbug.
"I think it does raise people’s consciousness that gonorrhea is out there, and there are new strains that are developing and evolving and we need to be aware of that and protect ourselves," said Peter Whiticir of the State Department of Health's STD/AIDS Prevention Control branch.
However, as Whiticir affirms, "I repeat again … there is no multi-drug super resistant superbug yet in Hawaii or the United States."