An antibiotic-resistant strain of gonorrhea that's now considered a superbug has some analysts saying that the bacteria's effects could match those of AIDS.
"This might be a lot worse than AIDS in the short run because the bacteria is more aggressive and will affect more people quickly," said Alan Christianson, a doctor of naturopathic medicine.
Even though nearly 30 million people have died from AIDS-related causes worldwide, Christianson believes the immediate effect of the gonorrhea strain is more direct. "Getting gonorrhea from this strain might put someone into septic shock and death in a matter of days," he said. "This is very dangerous."
"It's an emergency situation," said William Smith, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors. "As time moves on, it's getting more hazardous."
This gonorrhea strain, HO41, was discovered in Japan two years ago in a 31-year-old female sex worker who had been screened in 2009. The bacteria has since been found in Hawaii, California and Norway. Because it resists current antibiotic treatment, the strain has been placed in the superbug category with other resistant bacteria, such as MRSA and CRE. These superbugs kill about half the people they attack, and nearly one in 20 hospital patients become infected with one, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Though no deaths from HO41 have been reported, efforts to combat it must continue, Smith said. "We have to keep beating the drum on this," he said. "The potential for disaster is great."
According to the CDC, about 20 million a year contract a sexually transmitted disease (STD) and result in about $16 billion in medical costs. More than 800,000 of STD cases reported are gonorrhea infections, with most occurring in people between the ages of 15 and 24.
Gonorrhea is transmitted through unprotected sexual contact. Untreated, the disease can cause a number of health complications in women, including infertility. In men, the disease can be very painful and lead to sterility. It can also trigger other life-threatening illnesses, including heart infections.
Gonorrhea can be hard to detect. It often shows no symptoms in about half of women and in about 5 percent of men. Gonorrhea infection rates were at historic lows until two years ago, according to the CDC.
"That's what's kind of scary about this," Smith said. "We are at lows in terms of infections, but this strain is a very tricky bug and we don't have anything medically to fight it right now."
Since 1998, the Food and Drug Administration has approved only four new antibiotics of any kind, according to the Infectious Disease Society of America. The last approval was in 2010. Only seven antibiotics are in an advanced stage of development and still years away from approval and use.
Recognizing the problem, Congress passed a law last year referred to as the Gain Act (Generating Antibiotics Incentives Now) to help speed antibiotic development.
But Smith said more needs to be done. In a briefing on Capitol Hill last week, he urged Congress to target nearly $54 million in immediate funding to help find an antibiotic for HO41 and to conduct an education and public awareness campaign. "I'm hopeful we'll get the additional funds, but I can't say for sure," Smith said. "What I do know is we don't have the resources to fight this as it stands now."
Avoiding the disease completely is the best course, experts said. "People need to practice safe sex, like always," Christianson said. "Anyone beginning a new relationship should get tested along with their partner. The way gonorrhea works, not everyone knows they have it. And with this new strain it's even more important than ever to find out. "
All superbugs must be dealt with before it's too late, he said. "This is a disaster just waiting to happen," Christianson said. "It's time to do something about it before it explodes. "These superbugs, including the gonorrhea strain, are a health threat. We need to move now before it gets out of hand."
This piece originally appeared at CNBC.com.