A prostitute in Japan who developed a strain of drug-resistant gonorrhoea in her throat has triggered a worldwide alert about the spread of untreatable sexually transmitted diseases.
The woman, from Kyoto, was found to be infected with a new strain, HO41, which is resistant to almost all antibiotics. The research team that made the discovery said the strain was "likely to transform a common and once easily treatable infection into a global threat to public health".
The findings were presented yesterday at the International Society for Sexually Transmitted Disease Research in Quebec, Canada. The World Health Organisation warned last year of the growing threat from resistant strains of gonorrhoea, which is second to chlamydia as the most common sexually transmitted disease in the UK, with 16,629 cases in 2008.
There have been anecdotal reports of resistant cases from the UK.
Dr David Livermore, director of the antibiotic resistance monitoring laboratory at the Health Protection Agency, said: "At the moment the cephalosporin antibiotics we use in the UK are still effective. But our lab tests show that the bacteria are becoming less sensitive. The worry is that we will see gonorrhoea becoming a much more difficult-to-treat infection over the next five years."
The team of Swedish and Japanese researchers led by Magnus Unemo, from Orebro University Hospital in Sweden, said: "Since antibiotics became the standard treatment for gonorrhoea in the 1940s, this bacterium has shown a remarkable capacity to develop resistance mechanisms. The history of newly emergent resistance suggests it may spread rapidly unless new drugs and effective treatment programmes are developed."
If left untreated, gonorrhoea can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy and infertility in women. Worldwide, there are more than six million cases a year. Current treatment is with a single dose of antibiotics.
A spokesman for the HPA said: "We need to develop a different strategy for treatment, perhaps using two drugs at the same time or one over a number of days."
The Japanese woman was eventually cured after two courses of a powerful antibiotic, ceftriaxone, although it was not clear whether she recovered spontaneously or whether the antibiotic had some effect.