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updated 1/10/2013 1:21:16 PM ET 2013-01-10T18:21:16

Workers at a Canadian clinic have discovered that almost 7 percent of their patients with gonorrhea had a strain of the bacteria against which all oral antibiotics are useless. This alarming report suggests gonorrhea may become an untreatable disease, warn public health experts.

Antibiotic-resistant strains of gonorrhea  have been reported in outbreaks throughout Europe and Japan, according to US News, but the Canadian study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, marks the first time the strain has been seen in a large North American population.

"We've been very concerned about the threat of potentially untreatable gonorrhea," Dr. Gail Bolan of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told Fox News. "We feel it's only a matter of time until resistance will occur in the United States.

Dr. Vanessa Allen of Public Health Ontario and colleagues identified 291 patients at the clinic who tested positive for gonorrhea between May 2010 and April 2011. The Canadian patients whose gonorrhea was resistant to cefixime — the most commonly used oral antibiotic for gonorrhea, belonging to a class of drugs known as cephalosporins — were eventually cured by a powerful injectable antibiotic, ceftriaxone. But experts fear even that drug has its limits, since doctors are seeing a rise in resistance to ceftriaxone, too.

"The next threat is when, not if, the same thing happens with ceftriaxone. And then what?" lead researcher Allen told US News. "I think without a doubt this will become a bigger problem."

Gonorrhea, caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhea, is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases in the world. Symptoms include a burning sensation when urinating and a discharge from the genitals, though some people with the condition have no symptoms at all. The CDC estimates about 700,000 people in the United States have the disease.

"Its arrival is deeply troubling," write CDC experts in an accompanying JAMA editorial, referring to the antibiotic-resistant strains showing up in North America. "Clinicians now face the emergence of cephalosporin-resistant N. gonorrhoeae without any well-studied, effective backup treatment options."

Left untreated, gonorrhea can cause infertility and chronic pelvic pain in women, according to the CDC. Among men the infection can lead to epididymitis, a painful inflammation of the ducts attached to the testicles that may result in infertility. In 3 percent to 4 percent of cases, untreated infections can spread to the skin, blood, joints or heart and may cause potentially fatal infections.

Correction: This article was updated at 1:00 pm ET to replace the word "cephalosporin" with the word "cefixime." 

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