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New Study Warns of Widespread 'Superbugs' in South Asia

New Study Warns of Widespread 'Superbugs' in South Asia
New Study Warns of Widespread 'Superbugs' in South Asia

Indian health officials have rejected a new medical study warning of widespread drug-resistant bacteria in the country's capital.  But the co-author of the study says Delhi is in denial, and warns the bacteria can spread easily around the world, possibly threatening the effectiveness of medical treatments.

India's Health Ministry has issued a statement dismissing new British research warning of a dramatic spread of a bacteria containing a drug-resistant gene in the nation's capital.

The report was published Thursday in the British journal Lancet Infectious Diseases.  It focuses on the gene "NDM-1," in which ND stands for New Delhi.  A report last year cited the gene's presence here in bacteria found in hospital environments.  The newer report says the bacteria is now widespread in the city's drinking supply, sewer systems, and other public sources of water.

What concerns Dr. Mark Toleman, a co-author of the British study, is that NDM-1 turns ordinary illness-causing bacteria into what are known as "superbugs," which are all but impervious to antibiotics. "For these particular type of bacteria, there are no useful antibiotics left," he said.

That means simple bacterial illnesses, like dysentery, could become nearly impossible to treat with drugs.  Advanced procedures like surgery, which rely on antibiotics to control infection, could become much more dangerous.

The Indian Health Ministry statement, issued Thursday evening, describes the Lancet findings as "not significant."  The statement criticizes the study as being unsupported by clinical evidence, and points out that Indian patients respond well to antibiotic treatment.

Dr. Ranjit Roy Chaudhary is a senior advisor on medical policy to the Indian government.   He says the Lancet study should not be cause for alarm.

"The science of the study is good.  But the implication of the findings is always made a little more sensational than it is," Chaudhary said.

Chaudhary says India has long been aware it faces water management challenges. "This is not the first time bugs have been found in the water - even resistant bugs.  We shouldn't get alarmed by this.  We should take the ordinary precautions.  Boiling water for 20 minutes will get rid of it," Chaudhary said.

Still, Toleman insists India is in "extreme denial" about the potential danger of NDM-1.  He says that its spread is probably not limited to New Delhi. "Almost certainly it's much more widespread.  And I'm sure if we did a study in most, or maybe even all, of the major cities in India, we'd find it," he said.

Toleman and co-author Professor Timothy Walsh expect many more studies pointing to South Asia as a key culprit in spreading antibiotic-resistant bacteria globally via tourism and travel.

"The polluted water supply and the poor sanitation in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan is not only dramatically affecting the health of those individual nations, but ... this is having an effect on the health of the rest of the world," Toleman said.

The controversy over the Lancet report coincides with Thursday's World Health Day, sponsored by the United Nations World Health Organization, devoted this year entirely to the theme of antibiotic resistance.

Researchers widely agree that improper use of antibiotics, which is rampant in India, is making it easier for drug-resistant genes to emerge.  The Indian government is expected to announce new policies to restrict access to antibiotics in a matter of days.

Related video report by Vidushi Sinha:

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