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Image of the Week: Diagnosing ‘superbugs’

22 Jan, 2016
Neisseria gonorrhoeae

Credit: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Medical Illustrator. Neisseria gonorrhoea bacteria. In the UK today gonorrhoea is at threat of becoming untreatable, with highly drug-resistant strains emerging.

Each week we are reminded of the global threat of the latest ‘superbug’ or highly drug-resistant infection. MRSA is the culprit that probably first springs to mind, but increasingly infections that are often overlooked are joining this ‘super’ category. Our Image this week is of ‘Super-gonorrhoea’, one of the newest bugs on the block, with several outbreaks of this untreatable strain in the north of England at the end of last year. Amy Luck, a graduate trainee at the Wellcome Trust, tells us more…

Gonorrhoea. Not a topic that we usually want to discuss but – forced into the public eye over the last few years – this sexually transmitted ‘superbug’ is becoming more and more prevalent with several highly drug-resistant outbreaks over the last year. Good old penicillin has been used to treat this common infection for over 70 years and 80% of cases still respond to this treatment today in the UK, according to a recent review on Antimicrobial Resistance.

However, due to the 20% that don’t respond to penicillin, doctors prescribe almost all of their patients a treatment that is the ‘last line’ of defence available for gonorrhoea- a combination of two different drugs. Due to this overuse there is a strong selective pressure on these two drugs and a superbug-strain of gonorrhoea has emerged in the UK.

The way that we diagnose bacterial infections hasn’t changed since the 1940s. The Review on Antimicrobial Resistance calls for new, rapid diagnostics to stop unnecessary antibiotic use and tackle superbugs. The outdated method of ‘guessing’ if and what infection a patient may have has led to the over-prescription of antibiotics and increased the incidence of more common infections developing resistance to our antibiotics.  

If there was a rapid test to diagnose drug susceptibility or the type of infection that an individual had, tailored drugs could be administered.  This would allow patients to be treated with the correct drug the first time, reducing unnecessary antibiotic use and the likelihood of resistance.

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