A photomicrograph of Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the germ responsible for gonorrhea.
Photo: Joe Miller (CDC)

Last month, UK health officials reported the world’s first documented case of highly drug-resistant gonorrhea. Now there are two more cases of this so-called super gonorrhea in Australia.

On Tuesday, Brendan Murphy, the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer of Australia’s Department of Health, acknowledged the cases. One patient was diagnosed in Western Australia, while the other was found in Queensland. Both are now being diligently monitored by public health officials.

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“Drug-resistant gonorrhea exists in many countries, including Australia,” Murphy said in his announcement. “However, these latest cases and a recent one in the UK appear to be the first reported that are resistant to ALL of the antibiotics that have been in routine use against gonorrhoea.”

The Australian Department of Health has not immediately responded to a request for further details about the cases.

Our defenses against the gram-negative bacteria that causes gonorrhea, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, have been steadily failing over the years. Once treatable through penicillin alone, gonorrhea eventually became resistant to nearly every class of antibiotics available against it. By the 2010s, health agencies recommended that doctors use a combination therapy as the front line treatment—a standard oral antibiotic, azithromycin, mixed with a class of antibiotics given through injection called cephalosporins. The move only served to delay the inevitable, since signs of growing resistance against both drugs have continued to crop up worldwide in the years since.

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At the same time, it’s thought that improper and uncontrolled use of antibiotics has helped fuel the emergence of superbugs. This misuse might be more rampant in poorer areas of the world, where antibiotics are often sold over the counter. The UK case and one of the Australian cases are believed to have contracted the illness while traveling throughout Southeast Asia, a region known as a hotspot for both sex tourism well as antibiotic resistance.

Cases of gonorrhea has become more common just about everywhere, though, including in Australia, in recent years.

An estimated 78 million people newly contract the germ every year, which can hide in the genitals, rectum, and throat. Many people carry gonorrhea without showing any noticeable signs, though symptoms include a green or yellow genital discharge, pain while urinating, and, for women, bleeding between periods. If left untreated, gonorrhea can cause genital scarring and inflammation, infertility, and increased vulnerability to other sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV. If it’s passed from mother to child in the womb, it can also cause birth defects or miscarriage.

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There are several promising drugs in development for treating antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, but the best strategy for protecting yourself against any STD remains getting regular STD testing and using condoms during sex.

[Australian Government Department of Health]