Gonorrhea infections are becoming harder and harder to treat, according to new data published by the World Health Organization.
The WHO found that ciprofloxacin and azithromycin -- two drugs commonly used to treat gonorrhea -- are not as effective in treating the sexually transmitted illness as they used to be. Due to the shape-shifting nature of the bacterial infection, antibiotics used to fight the infection tend to wear off overtime.
"The bacteria that cause [gonorrhea] are particularly smart," said Dr. Teodora Wi, a medical officer at the WHO. "Every time we use a new class of antibiotics to treat the infection, the bacteria evolve to resist them."
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Some cases of gonorrhea have been deemed untreatable by all known antibiotics in some developed countries. This knowledge is attributed to high quality surveillance methods, which poorer countries lack, but where gonorrhea may actually be more common, the WHO said.
Dr. Wi told the BBC that there have been cases in France, Japan and Spain where the infection was completely untreatable.
Widespread resistance to the drug ciprofloxacin -- also known as Cipro -- was documented by the WHO Global Gonococcal Antimicrobial Surveillance Programme, a laboratory network that monitors trends in drug-resistant gonorrhoea, according to a statement. An increased resistance to gonorrhea was found in the drug azithromycin.
Data from 77 countries was analyzed for the study. From 2009 to 2014, 97 percent of countries reported Cipro-resistant strains of gonorrhea, and 81 percent reported resistance to azithromycin. Sixty-six percent of countries reported resistance to last-resort treatment known as ESCs (extended-spectrum cephalosporins).
Right now, the WHO said ESCs are the only antibiotics that remain effective against gonorrhea. However, due to a lingering potency of the ESCs cefixime and ceftriaxone, the WHO recommends that doctors prescribe a combination of ceftriaxone and azithromycin to treat gonorrhea.
Gonorrhea affects roughly 78 million people per year, according to the WHO. Left untreated, the illness can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, which can lead to infertility and the formation of scar tissue, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Untreated gonorrhea can also increase the risk of contracting HIV.
The WHO is stressing awareness of antibiotic resistance to gonorrhea and said the illness is "sometimes impossible" to treat, according to a press release issued Friday.
"To control gonorrhea, we need new tools and systems for better prevention, treatment, earlier diagnosis, and more complete tracking and reporting of new infections, antibiotic use, resistance and treatment failures," said Dr. Marc Sprenger, director of antimicrobial resistance at the WHO.
CORRECTION (July 8, 2017, 7:32 a.m. EST): An earlier version of this story misidentified gonorrhea as a virus in the second paragraph. Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection.