How gonorrhea became more of a drug-resistant ‘superbug’ during the COVID-19 pandemic

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COVID-19 has rightfully dominated infectious disease news since 2020. However, that doesn’t mean other infectious diseases took a break. In fact, U.S. rates of infection by gonorrhea have risen during the pandemic.

Unlike COVID-19, which is a new virus, gonorrhea is an ancient disease. The first known reports of gonorrhea date from China in 2600 BC, and the disease has plagued humans ever since. Gonorrhea has long been one of the most commonly reported bacterial infections in the U.S.. It is caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which can infect mucous membranes in the genitals, rectum, throat and eyes.

Gonorrhea is typically transmitted by sexual contact. It is sometimes referred to as “the clap.”

Prior to the pandemic, there were around 1.6 million new gonorrhea infections each year. Over 50% of those cases involved strains of gonorrhea that had become unresponsive to treatment with at least one antibiotic.

In 2020, gonorrhea infections initially went down 30%, most likely due to pandemic lockdowns and social distancing. However, by the end of 2020 – the last year for which data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is available – reported infections were up 10% from 2019.

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