‘Super gonorrhea’ may increase in wake of COVID-19

The World Health Organization (WHO) is warning about the potential rise in antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea — also known as “super gonorrhea” — due to overuse of antibiotics during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The news, delivered to British newspaper the Sun via a WHO spokesperson, elicited both concern and humor on social media Monday.

Specifically, the spokesperson mentioned a frequently prescribed antibiotic known as azithromycin, and said that, overall, “overuse of antibiotics in the community can fuel the emergence of antimicrobial resistance in [gonorrhea].” But what is super gonorrhea, and is it something to worry about in the U.S.?

Here’s what you need to know.

Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted disease that affects more than 1 million Americans per year. Super gonorrhea refers to strains of the STD that do not respond to common antibiotics. The first cases of super gonorrhea appeared in Japan in 2011, but antibiotic resistant strains have since spread to many countries, including the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hosts an information page on super gonorrhea saying that it has “quickly developed resistance to all but one class of antibiotics” and that as many as half of new gonorrhea infections are resistant to at least one antibiotic.

Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, a professor of at CUNY School of Public Health & Health Policy, predicted the arrival of super gonorrhea to the U.S. in a 2018 op-ed for Forbes, following the first case in the U.K. Speaking with Yahoo Life, Lee says that super gonorrhea is one of many “super bugs,” or strains of bacteria that become resistant to the drugs used to treat them. “In 2017, the WHO published a list of bad superbugs and drug-resistant gonorrhea was one of them,” says Lee. “So it’s always been a concern.”

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