A Superbug STD Is On The Loose In Australia

A Superbug STD Is On The Loose In Australia
An illustration of drug-resistant Shigella bacteria, listed as one of the most serious antibiotic-resistant threats in the U.S. by the CDC. (Illustration: Stephanie Rossow, CDC)

Researchers in Australia are sounding the alarm over a foodborne and sexually transmitted disease that’s become resistant to every common antibiotic used to treat it.

The disease is called shigellosis, named after the Shigella bacteria that cause it. It’s one of the most common bacterial culprits of diarrhoea and stomach flu worldwide, affecting some 500,000 Americans annually alone. But though it’s often spread by eating or drinking poop-contaminated food and water, it’s contagious enough that sexual contact spreads it, too (and victims can be contagious for weeks after the symptoms are gone).

Cases of sexually transmitted shigellosis have been more common among men who have sex with men. And in recent years, there have been increasing outbreaks of multi-drug resistant shigellosis spread among this population, according to the Centres for the Disease Control and Prevention. But even these resistant cases have still typically been treatable with at least one readily available drug.

In a new report out Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, however, public health researchers at the University of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia say that’s starting to change. Between 2016 to 2018, their diagnostic lab has detected hundreds of people infected with extensively resistant strains of Shigella sonnei, one of the two most common causes of shigellosis. These strains seem completely resistant to all oral antibiotics recommended for treatment. Further genetic analysis uncovered one strain in particular that’s spreading among men who have sex with men.

Cases of shigellosis typically clear up within a week’s time without any antibiotics needed. Sometimes, though, the infection can lead to more serious, even life-threatening complications, especially for people with weaker immune systems. And while other, more potent antibiotics administered through IV in a hospital can still treat these super-resistant infections, it’s obviously not an experience you want to put patients through. The delay in finding an effective treatment can endanger people’s lives.

“It’s of enormous concern that we’re seeing cases of Shigella that can’t be treated with tablet medication, but instead require hospitalisation,” said Brett Sutton, chief health officer of Victoria, in a statement released by the University of Melbourne.

Doctors should be flagging any suspected cases of shigellosis and sending them for testing, Sutton added, noting that people can lower their risk of it by washing their hands regularly, cooking food properly, and avoiding sex for at least a week until after they or their partners have experienced diarrhoea.

Shigella isn’t the only sexually transmitted superbug that threatens public health. Doctors across the world are now seeing cases of gonorrhea similarly resistant to the front-line drugs used to treat it.