It's not good when the words "gonorrhea" and "incurable" are uttered in the same sentence, but that's what's happening.
A recent Canadian study appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association yielded the first specimens of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, making very real the notion that the sexually-transmitted infection will become much more difficult, or even impossible, to treat.
Right now, it's easily taken care of with antibiotics – in fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently changed its recommended first-line treatment for the infection, in part because it was worried its previous recommendation, cefixime, losing its effectiveness.
Gonorrhea is still the second-most common sexually transmitted disease in the U.S., with more than 300,000 cases reported nationwide in 2011 (chlamydia is the most common STD).
More than 9,500 of gonorrhea were reported in L.A. County, a place that holds the dubious distinction of being home to about one-third of the state's cases.
"What [researchers] have been seeing is an evolution of antibiotic susceptibility of the organism," said Dr. Christine Wigen, the acting STD controller for the county public health department's Division of HIV/STD Programs.
In other words, antibiotics are having less of an effect on the infection than they used to, and the end of that trajectory is an STD that's incurable. It doesn't look like that's going to happen anytime soon, though – at least, not here in L.A. County.
"It’s important for the public to know that we still have medications, currently, that work to cure gonorrhea infections and that there have been no clinical cases of resistant gonorrhea in the U.S.," said Wigen.
She did note that gonorrhea treatment became slightly more expensive with the changes the CDC made in August, since it's now a dual-therapy response: one part injection and one part oral antibiotic. While the latter can be self-administered, the injection requires licensed medical personnel, which may add to the overall cost of treating the STD.
Wigen said people who have contracted gonorrhea can either be asymptomatic, meaning there are no symptoms, or have a "floridly symptomatic infection," which "could consist of [a] genital or anal discharge or sore throat, depending upon where you had your sexual exposure."
As far as preventive measures, Wigen recommends keeping the number of sexual partners low, using condoms and getting tested at a clinic if symptoms manifest.