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Gonorrhea superbug? Scientists fear spread of antibiotic-resistant strain

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bacteria, petri dish, super bug, superbug
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(CBS) Scientists announced the discovery of a new gonorrhea strain in Japan, raising concern among health officials worldwide. The new strain, dubbed H041, is resistant to the only kinds of antibiotics that treat the common sexually transmitted disease.

"This is both an alarming and a predictable discovery," Dr. Magnus Unemo, a researcher at the Swedish Reference Laboratory for Pathogenic Neisseria in Orebro, Sweden, said in a written statement. "The history of newly emergent resistance in the bacterium suggests that it may spread rapidly unless new drugs and effective treatment programs are developed."

Unemo and his team announced at an international medical conference in Quebec on Monday,  that the H041 strain appeared to resist cephalosporin antibiotics.

"Why this is so concerning is that there are no other treatment options besides cephalosporins right now," Dr. Kimberly Workowski, an associate professor of medicine at Emory University, told MSNBC.

And judging from a report last week, U.S. health officials are already on the lookout for this potential superbug at home. A study in the July 8th issue of the CDC journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report warned doctors to look for and report cases of gonorrhea that are resistant to cephalosporin antibiotics.

"We do fear that based on what we are hearing around the world, we will see cephalosporin-resistant gonorrhea," Dr. Gail Bolan, director of STD prevention at the CDC, tells WebMD. "We don't know when this is going to happen, but the hope is that we have a few years to identify other treatments."

The CDC is asking doctors to follow current treatment guidelines, which require prescribing two types of antibiotics. If doctors suspect a patient has a resistant strain, they should take a culture and contact the local or state health department.

The author of the CDC report, Dr. Edward Hook, professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told MSNBC that this is a serious issue that faces health experts.

"Could we be developing a problem that is far worse and more problematic? Absolutely." 

Gonorrhea is one of the most common STDs in the world, and in the U.S. 700,000 people contract the disease each year. Symptoms include pus discharge from the genitals, painful urination, and sore throat. But up to 50 percent of women and 5 percent of men don't show any symptoms, and may go untreated. These people are at at a greater risk for complications like sterility, kidney failure, and meningitis.

The CDC has more on gonorrhea.