SCIENCE

Drug-Resistant Gonorrhea: Is The Antibiotic Era Coming To An End? (VIDEO)

It really is as scary as it sounds. Gonorrhea is the newest superbug. Could it become the next AIDS?

If you've never heard of a superbug before, you may want to sit down. It's a bit of an oversimplification, but bacteria and other infectious agents earn superbug status once they've developed resistance to a number of medications originally designed to wipe them out (like antibiotics). Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (commonly called MRSA) falls into that category. And perhaps the newest member of the superbug family? Gonorrhea.

Yes, gonorrhea has earned superbug status, as it is now resistant to all but one drug. I spoke with Maryn McKenna, author and expert on infectious diseases, to learn about the frightening future of this common STD.

To learn more, watch the video above or read the transcript by clicking the link below. And don't forget to participate in the comment thread at the bottom of the page. Come on, talk nerdy to me!

MARYN MCKENNA: A superbug is any disease organism, a fungus, a virus, bacteria, probably usually means bacteria, that has gotten the ability to defend itself against lots of antibiotics. Not just one or two antibiotics but a number of antibiotics. So that, if it’s not actually incurable, it’s pretty close. It’s really a problem.

CARA SANTA MARIA: And one of the newest candidates for superbug status? Gonorrhea. You heard me. Gonorrhea is swiftly developing drug resistance. At this point, there's really only one antibiotic left on the market that works reliably to clear the infection--an injectable drug. I'm Cara Santa Maria for HuffPost Science, and I recently spoke with Maryn McKenna, author of "Superbug" and "Beating Back The Devil," to learn more.

MM: Earlier this summer the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, who in the United States kind of keep track of antibiotic resistance, they basically threw up their hands and said ‘Look doctors just don’t even use this one pill form of the drug anymore. Just stick to that one remaining injectable drug.’ But what they were saying when they said that was ‘Listen guys there’s just one drug left. That’s all we’ve got.’

CSM: So, just how do bacteria develop antibiotic resistance?

MM: Bacteria produce a new generation every 20 minutes. And every time they reproduce, which is they copy themselves, they make little copying errors. So when those little copying changes make the bacteria stronger as opposed to weaker then that means they are better able to defend themselves against those compounds, antibiotics. So what happens is if you’ve got an infection and some of the bacteria in the infection or some of the bacteria in your body are more protected than others, you take antibiotics and what happens is the weak die and the strong survive.

CSM: And this is exactly what's happening with gonorrhea. So, how did it get to this point?

MM: The whole issue with antibiotic resistance and why it hasn’t become more of a public health priority is because there’s always been more drugs. And it’s just in the past really decade or so that the pharma companies have all started to say, ‘You know what, there’s not going to be more drugs because we figured out that antibiotics aren’t really a cost-effective thing for us to make. Because we spend 10 years making the drug, we spend a billion dollars and then we bring the drug out and bacteria are resistant to it within a year.’

CSM: We know not to overuse antibiotics. Taking them when we don't need them, like for a cold, or not finishing a full course allows the very strongest bacteria to potentially outrun the drugs, and develop future antibiotic resistance. But what about right now? What can people do to ensure that gonorrhea doesn't develop resistance to the last drug that actually works on it?

MM:Just don’t get it.

CSM: Whoa.

MM: Just do the stuff that we tell people to do all the time to protect themselves against STDs. Because if the disease doesn’t get passed along then the chances of it becoming resistant become much less.

CSM: So what happens if and when that last antibiotic for gonorrhea stops working?

MM: I asked a friend of mine who is a longtime source, someone who works in the STD world, if we run out of drugs what does that really mean? You know, would we really run out of drugs? What happens next? And I thought she was going to say, well if we run out of the injectable than what happens is you have to go to the hospital and you have to get an IV and so forth. But what she said is, ‘No what happens after the injectable is clinical trials. We have to go back to pharma companies and say what have you got?’

CSM: That doesn't bode well.

MM: The antibiotic era isn’t very old. It starts, you know on the outside, it starts in 1928 when Alexander Fleming looks down at his lab dish of staph and realizes that something has blown in the window of his lab and killed some of the staph and it turns out that what’s in that dish is the mold that makes penicillin. So you know from 1928 to now, less than 100 years when we have these amazing compounds that take care of diseases that used to kill people really quickly, and it’s fair to ask, ‘Is that going to be it?’

CSM: Do you think that's going to be it? Let me know what you think on Twitter, Facebook, or by leaving a comment right here on the Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me!

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