(CBS/AP) GENEVA - A strain of gonorrhea that is resistant to the disease's only remaining treatment, cephalosporin antibiotics, has officials at the World Health Organization warning doctors around the world to step up their efforts to stop the disease.
The U.N. health agency said Wednesday it is urging governments and doctors to increase their surveillance efforts for the antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection that can cause inflammation, infertility, pregnancy complications and, in extreme cases, lead to maternal death. Babies born to mothers with gonorrhea have a 50 percent chance of developing eye infections that may cause blindness.
"This organism has basically been developing resistance against every medication we've thrown at it," said Dr. Manjula Lusti-Narasimhan, a scientist in the WHO's department of sexually transmitted diseases. This includes a group of antibiotics called cephalosporins that are currently considered the last line of treatment.
"In a couple of years it will have become resistant to every treatment option we have available now," she told The Associated Press in an interview ahead of WHO's public announcement on its `global action plan' to combat the disease.
Lusti-Narasimhan said the new guidance is aimed at ending complacency about gonorrhea and encouraging researchers to speed up their hunt for a new cure.
Once considered a scourge of sailors and soldiers, gonorrhea - known sometimes as "the clap" - became easily treatable with the discovery of penicillin. Now, it is again the second most common sexually transmitted infection after chlamydia. The global health body estimates that of the 498 million new cases of curable sexually transmitted infections worldwide, gonorrhea is responsible for some 106 million infections annually. It also increases the chances of infection with other diseases, such as HIV.
"It's not a European problem or an African problem, it's really a worldwide problem," said Lusti-Narasimhan.
Scientists believe overuse or incorrect use of antibiotics, coupled with the gonorrhea bacteria's astonishing ability to adapt, means the disease is now close to becoming a super bug.
Bacteria that survive antibiotic treatment due to a mutation that makes them resistant then quickly spread their genes in an accelerated process of natural selection. This is a general problem affecting all antibiotics, but gonorrhea is particularly quick to adapt, said Lusti-Narasimhan.
"If it didn't do so much damage it would actually be a fun organism to study," she said.
A gonorrhea strain resistant to cephalosporins was first found in Japan,reported, raising international concern. At the time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also put out a warning to doctors to be on the lookout for and report cases of cephalosporin-resistant gonorrhea.
"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, said at the time. "We don't know when this is going to happen, but the hope is that we have a few years to identify other treatments."
More recently the resistance has also been detected in Britain, Australia, France, Sweden and Norway. As these are all countries with well-developed health systems, it is likely that cephalosporin-resistant strains are also circulating undetected elsewhere.
Therefore the Geneva-based agency wants countries not just to tighten their rules for antibiotic use, but also to improve their surveillance systems so that the full extent of the problem can be determined.
Better sex education is also needed, as proper condom use is an effective means of stopping transmission, said Lusti-Narasimhan.
"We're not going to be able to get rid of it completely," she said. "But we can limit the spread."
The World Health Organization has more information on gonorrhea.