According to the Ministry of Health, over 1.5 million Brazilians each year contract the sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea. This alone is significant, but the extent of the problem becomes clearer when we learn that the bacteria that causes gonorrhea, Neisseria gonorrhea, while still treatable, is becoming resistant to almost all forms of antibiotics.
“Antibiotic resistance” is a common phenomenon. It is a battle of survival: a bacteria as a species is trying to survive, and medical science is constantly trying to kill the bacteria that cause illness. Many bacteria are not harmful, for example, most of the bacteria in our intestines are helpful and actually necessary for the proper functioning of our body.
Doctors are constantly prescribing antibiotics to kill the harmful bacteria, and the bacteria, to survive as a species, mutates (changes) slowly and continuously over the years to become stronger than the antibiotics. So each new generation of the bacteria is slightly more resistant to the antibiotics, and eventually, the bacteria becomes stronger than the antibiotic, and the antibiotic that was effective, no longer is. The bacteria has won that battle, so doctors have to use another, stronger antibiotic (always more expensive and often with more side effects) to kill the bacteria.
Then the cycle starts again. The new antibiotic slowly loses the battle to the bacteria. Now this is probably ok as long as doctors have another type of antibiotics to try. The problem is, we are running out of antibiotic types for certain diseases such as gonorrhea.
The battle history of medicine vs. gonorrhea has been this: before antibiotics were discovered, doctors treated it with oral silver solutions, but in the 1940s, the new drug penicillin proved to be a much better treatment. By 1976, the bacteria became stronger than penicillin, so doctors started using tetracycline and erythromycin. Those worked until about 1986, then it was necessary to move to the cephalosporin class of antibiotics, and then the fluoroquinolones. Sometimes a combination of several types were needed to kill the infection.
By about five years ago, the gonorrhea bacteria had won against all these classes of antibiotics, except for the cephalosporin type. And before 2012, an oral form of cephalosporin usually worked, but now, public health officials recommend a combination of a cephalosporin given by injection along with another oral antibiotic.
While drug companies have been great at developing new (and profitable) drugs for conditions like AIDS, erection dysfunction, forehead wrinkles, and high cholesterol, they haven’t been too successful in finding new antibiotics, so we are running out of them.
You can read more about the symptoms, complications, treatment, and prevention of gonorrhea here. The best way to treat gonorrhea is to prevent it from entering your body. The only sure way is to avoid sexual contact, or to be monogamous with a monogamous, and uninfected, partner. If that is not practical, the next best prevention is a condom, used properly whenever having sex, and you can get information about that here.
Today we have only given an overview of antibiotic resistance. It’s an important issue in modern medicine, so stay tuned to Mais Saúde for more news about this subject.
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