Health officials have issued a warning on the rise in an ‘extremely antibiotic-resistant’ infection predominantly affecting gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) confirmed there has been an increase in cases of Shigella sonnei, a highly infectious sexually transmitted disease, in recent months.

The health safety watchdog said 47 cases have been reported in the four-month period between September 2021 and January 2022, compared with 16 cases in the previous 17 months (April 2020 to August 2021).

UKHSA has been following the strain since 2018, but recent cases showed that resistance is increasing.

This comes as antimicrobial resistance is reportedly the leading cause of death worldwide. A study in The Lancet, published last week, found that antimicrobial resistance kills about 3,500 people every day worldwide.

According to the health body, Shigella is a gastrointestinal infection that causes diarrhoea, stomach cramps and fever. It is caused by bacteria found in faeces.

Symptoms of the STI are normally first seen between one and four days after exposure and are often mistaken for food poisoning, it explained.

Dr Gauri Godbole, a consultant medical microbiologist at UKHSA, advised that practising good hygiene after sex is ‘really important to keep you and your partners safe’.

He added: ‘It’s important that gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men do not dismiss their symptoms and speak to their GP or sexual health clinic, mentioning Shigella, if they are unwell’.

Takudzwa Mukiwa, head of social marketing programmes at Terrence Higgins Trust, said: ‘We’ve been working closely with the UKHSA to get the message out about Shigella to men who have sex with men – about the risk of infection, how to prevent it, and how to treat it. It’s vital for people to be aware of Shigella and not dismiss these symptoms.’

‘Symptoms are often mistaken for food poisoning so it is important to familiarise yourself with them. Shigella can be treated with antibiotic treatment, however surveillance of recent cases by UKHSA has shown that resistance to antibiotics is increasing’.

In September, The Pharmacist reported the number of sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) diagnosed across England was down by almost a third in 2020, compared to the previous year.

The decrease was attributed to a combination of sexual behavioural changes among people who were isolating due to the pandemic and fewer diagnoses because of disruption to sexual health services.