Objectives: This study aimed to investigate the origin of high-level azithromycin resistance that emerged in isolates of Neisseria gonorrhoeae in England and Wales in 2007, and to establish methods for identifying high-level azithromycin resistance.
Methods: The Gonococcal Resistance to Antimicrobials Surveillance Programme (GRASP) data from 2001-07 were examined for emerging trends in azithromycin susceptibility. Further to the identification of six high-level azithromycin-resistant isolates in GRASP 2007, an additional 102 isolates were selected on the basis of azithromycin susceptibility and geographic origin from the GRASP 2006 and 2007 collections. Susceptibility testing by Etest and disc diffusion was performed on all 108 isolates and 75 of these were typed by N. gonorrhoeae multiantigen sequence typing.
Results: A slight drift towards higher MICs of azithromycin was observed in the gonococcal population since 2001. Of greater concern was the first example of a shift to high-level resistance observed in six isolates in 2007. All six isolates were sequence type 649, which was not observed in any of the lower-level azithromycin-resistant isolates from 2007 or in any isolates tested from the same geographical locations. Contact tracing data for one patient suggested a link with Scotland. Disc diffusion testing of all 108 isolates showed that azithromycin, but not erythromycin, discs can differentiate between low-level and high-level resistance.
Conclusions: High-level azithromycin resistance has emerged in England and Wales. Contact tracing and typing data suggest this may have originated from Scotland. Surveillance of azithromycin resistance will be key in controlling its further dissemination.