Sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis are becoming harder to treat due to antibiotic resistance, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned.
In response to the growing threat, the WHO has issued health officials around the world with new guidelines on how to best treat the three STIs, which are all caused by bacteria.
It is estimated that each year, 131 million people are infected with chlamydia, 78 million with gonorrhoea, and 5.6 million with syphilis worldwide.
The WHO warned that some antibiotics commonly used to treat these STIs are now failing as a result of misuse and overuse, reducing treatment options.
Of the three STIs, gonorrhoea has developed the strongest resistance to antibiotics, the WHO warned.
Strains of multidrug-resistant gonorrhoea, sometimes referred to as “super gonorrhoea”, that do not respond to any available antibiotics have already been detected.
Antibiotic resistance in chlamydia and syphilis, though less common, also exists, making prevention and prompt treatment critical.
Under the new guidelines, the WHO has urged national health authorities to track the prevalence of resistance to different antibiotics in the strains of gonorrhoea circulating among their population.
The new guidelines call on health authorities to advise doctors to prescribe whichever antibiotic would be most effective, based on local resistance patterns.
They no longer recommend quinolones (a class of antibiotic) for the treatment of gonorrhoea due to widespread high levels of resistance.
To treat syphilis, the guidelines state a single dose of benzathine penicillin – a form of the antibiotic that is injected by a doctor or nurse into the infected patient’s buttock or thigh muscle - is now the most effective treatment.
Meanwhile the organisation has stressed the importance of condoms as a preventative measure against chlamydia and other STIs.
“Chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis are major public health problems worldwide, affecting millions of peoples’ quality of life, causing serious illness and sometimes death,” said Ian Askew, director of reproductive health and research at the WHO.
“The new WHO guidelines reinforce the need to treat these STIs with the right antibiotic, at the right dose, and the right time to reduce their spread and improve sexual and reproductive health.
“To do that, national health services need to monitor the patterns of antibiotic resistance in these infections within their countries.”
The WHO also warned that, when left undiagnosed and untreated, these STIs can result in serious complications and long-term health problems for women, such as pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy, and miscarriage.
It said untreated gonorrhoea and chlamydia can cause infertility in both men and women, while infection with chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis can also increase a person’s risk of being infected with HIV.
An untreated STI in a pregnant woman increases the chances of stillbirth and newborn death.