There could soon be “no effective treatment” against the sexually transmitted infection, gonorrhoea, which infects more than 100 million people globally every year, the World Health Organisation warned today.
In a new appeal to the global medical community, the WHO said several countries including the UK had reported cases of the infection resitant to the last line of antibiotics and millions were at risk of running out of treatment options.
It called for “greater vigilance” in the correct use of antibiotics and more research into new treatments to head off a threatened global health disaster.
"Gonorrhoea is becoming a major public health challenge, due to the high incidence of infections accompanied by dwindling treatment options. The available data only shows the tip of the iceberg. Without adequate surveillance we won't know the extent of resistance to gonorrhoea and without research into new antimicrobial agents, there could soon be no effective treatment for patients," Dr Manjula Lusti-Narasimhan, from the Department of Reproductive Health and Research at WHO, said.
The warning is the third to be issued about gonorrhoea by WHO in three years. Experts say the growth of antibiotic resistance creating potentially untreatable infections poses as great a threat to public health as the emergence of new diseases such as Aids and pandemic flu.
Gonorrhoea is the second most common sexually transmitted disease in the UK after chlamydia. There were almost 21,000 cases reported in 2011, an unprecedented 25 per cent increase on the previous year. The Health Protection Agency warned doctors two years ago to treat cases with two antibiotics in combination after it became clear that traditional therapy with a single antibiotic was no longer enough.
Untreated, gonorrhoea can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility in both men and women, ectopic pregnancy and stillbirth.
"We are very concerned about recent reports of treatment failure from the last effective treatment option - the class of cephalosporin antibiotics - as there are no new therapeutic drugs in development," Dr Lusti-Narasimhan said.
Antibitoic resistance is rising in all infections and represents medicine’s equivalent of climate change, experts say. An estimated 25,000 people die each year in the European Union from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.
An offical report earlier this year from the Government’s antibiotic resistance working party warned Britain faced a “massive rise” in cases of antibiotic-resistant blood poisoning.
Dame Sally Davies, the Government's chief medical officer, pledged £500,000 to fund research into the threat.
Reports have increased across Europe of patients with infections that are nearly impossible to treat. Last year the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) said that in some countries up to 50 per cent of cases of blood poisoning caused by one bug - K. pneumoniae, a common cause of urinary and respiratory conditions - were resistant to carbapenems, the most powerful class of antibiotics.
Marc Sprenger, the director, said: "The situation is critical.”
Discovering new medicines to treat resistant superbugs has proved increasingly difficult and costly - they are taken only for a short period and the commercial returns are low. The European Commission last year launched a plan to boost research into new antibiotics, by promising accelerated approval for new drugs and funding for development.