For the first time, international researchers have identified a strain of gonorrhea that is resistant to treatment with antibiotics, scientists announced at a sex disease research conference Monday.
The common bacterial infection, often called the "clap," has until now been easily treatable with antibiotics but if left alone can cause infertility in women and painful urination and a pus-oozing infection in men.
"This is both an alarming and a predictable discovery," said Magnus Unemo of the Swedish Reference Laboratory for Pathogenic Neisseria.
"Since antibiotics became the standard treatment for gonorrhea in the 1940s, this bacterium has shown a remarkable capacity to develop resistance mechanisms to all drugs introduced to control it."
Details of the discovery were to be released by Unemo and colleagues at the 19th conference of the International Society for Sexually Transmitted Disease Research, on from July 10-13 in Quebec City, Canada.
Since the finding is so new, scientists are unclear how widespread the resistant strain may be in the world population, but concerns are mounting that it could spread quickly.
"While it is still too early to assess if this new strain has become widespread, 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 said.
As many as 700,000 people in the United States are believed to get gonorrhea annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Up to half of infected women experience no symptoms, while men usually see signs of infection within two to 30 days.
"Anyone who has any type of sex can catch gonorrhea," according to the US National Institutes of Health, which notes however that risks are higher among people with multiple partners and people who have unprotected sex.
"Gonorrhea is more common in large cities, inner-city areas, populations with lower overall levels of education and people with lower socioeconomic status," added the NIH.
People who suspect they may be infected should see a doctor in order to obtain a prescription and should not attempt to treat the problem themselves, experts say.
The current treatment recommended by the CDC is an single dose pill of an antibiotic called cefixime, or a single dose of azithromycin (Zithromax) for people who are allergic to penicillin, ceftriaxone or cefixime.
Penicillin is no longer considered the standard treatment because it was previously found to be ineffective in some cases.