superbugs from India

Overuse of antibiotics and poor sanitation in India have created a very nasty form of antibiotic-resistant bacteria against which even last-resort drugs are powerless. Thanks in part to medical tourism, these superbugs will be coming soon to a hospital near you.

[I]n 2010, a study of a New Delhi-area hospital found that 24 percent of bacterial infections there could resist the last-resort carbapenem antibiotics. Thirteen percent not only resisted carbapenem drugs, but overcame 14 other antibiotics, making treatment options exceedingly limited. The gene that conferred this extreme drug-resistance was dubbed “New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase 1” or NDM-1. Scientists found that, unlike other drug-resistant bacteria, NDM-1 bacteria are able to quickly and prolifically spread their genes to other bacteria, easily jumping the barriers of species and genus. The pandemic potential of such a microbe is enormous. Indeed, according to Tim Walsh, a University of Cardiff medical microbiologist who has been chasing the dangerous gene, NDM-1 infections already turned up in more than 35 countries last year — often in the bodies of medical tourists, who had traveled to India or Pakistan for cheap surgeries and other procedures.  And NDM-1 bacteria have also been found in drinking water and in puddles around New Delhi. ….

[T]here are only two imperfect drugs that can treat NDM-1 infections. The first, an antibiotic called colistin, was first sold over fifty years ago and fell into disuse in the 1980s, when less toxic drugs were developed using more modern methods. The second, tigecycline, is a pricey intravenous drug approved only for soft-tissue infections, not the urinary tract infections and pneumonias that comprise the majority of hospital-acquired infections. With more frequent use of these two limited drugs, it will be only a matter of time before NDM-1 bacteria can resist them as well.

Sonia Shah “When Superbugs Attack“, Foreign Affairs, 28 March 2012.

Science journalist Sonia Shah is author of The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010). You can view her slide show here.

Tags: ,

Comments are closed.