MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. There's some disturbing news today about a disease we don't hear about much anymore - gonorrhea. Federal health officials say the sexually transmitted infection is getting dangerously close to being drug-resistant and therefore, untreatable. So, as NPR's Rob Stein reports, they unveiled a plan to try to buy more time.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Gonorrhea has been plaguing humanity for centuries but ever since penicillin came along, a dose of antibiotics would usually take care of it. Jonathan Zenilman studies infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins.
DR. JONATHAN ZENILMAN: Gonorrhea used to be susceptible to penicillin, ampicillin, tetracycline and doxycycline - very commonly used drugs.
STEIN: But one by one, each of those antibiotics - and almost every new one that has come along since - eventually stopped working. Zenilman says one reason is that the bacterium that causes gonorrhea can mutate quickly, to defend itself.
ZENILMAN: If this was a person, this person would be incredibly creative. The bug has an incredible ability to adapt, and just develop new mechanisms of resisting the impact of these drugs.
STEIN: Another reason is that antibiotics are used way too much when they're not really needed, giving gonorrhea - and other nasty germs - too many chances to learn how to survive.
ZENILMAN: A lot of this is occurring not because of treatment for gonorrhea, but overuse for other infections such as urinary tract infections, upper respiratory tract infections and so forth.
STEIN: It got to the point, recently, where doctors only had two antibiotics left that could still cure gonorrhea. And today, federal officials announced that one of their worst fears had come true. One of those last two had started losing its power, too.
DR. GAIL BOLAN: We are sounding the alarm.
STEIN: That's Gail Bolan, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
BOLAN: We're basically down to one drug, you know, as the most effective treatment for gonorrhea.
STEIN: And, Bolan says, it gets worse. The one, last drug is in the same family of antibiotics. That means it's only a matter of time before it goes, too.
BOLAN: The big worry is that we, potentially, could have untreatable gonorrhea in the United States.
STEIN: That's already happening in other countries. Totally untreatable gonorrhea is popping up in Asia and Europe. So the CDC decided to take a big step. Today, the federal agency declared that doctors should immediately stop using the latest antibiotic that's failing.
BOLAN: We feel we need to a take a critical step, to preserve the last remaining drug we know is effective to treat gonorrhea.
STEIN: It's critical because about 700,000 Americans get gonorrhea every year. And gonorrhea can cause serious complications if untreated - unrelenting pain, infertility and even life-threatening, ectopic pregnancies. William Smith heads an advocacy group that fights sexually transmitted diseases.
WILLIAM SMITH: I think it should be a real clarion call to every American; that we've got a looming public health crisis on our hands and potentially, hundreds of thousands of cases of untreatable gonorrhea in this country, every year.
STEIN: Officials know implementing the new federal guidelines won't be easy. For one thing, the remaining drug is an injection, not a pill. And they want doctors to give it along with at least one other antibiotic, and test patients, to make sure they're cured. But they know all of this will only help for a while. They can't stop the clock from ticking for the one drug left. Here's Gail Bolan, from the CDC, again.
BOLAN: We think it's only a matter of time, based on the history of this organism, until resistance does develop.
STEIN: So scientists are searching for new combinations of antibiotics that might work. And officials are pushing for new weapons that might stay one step ahead of gonorrhea, and the growing list of antibiotic-resistant infections.
Rob Stein, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.