News / Health

South Asia Superbug is Potential Global Problem

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Vidushi Sinha

Scientists say they have discovered a new gene among bacteria that are highly resistant to even the most powerful antibiotics.  Experts say the superbug, originally found in India and other parts of South Asia, is showing up in patients in Europe and the United States and is at the root of life-threatening pneumonia and urinary tract infections.

Scientists warn the superbug has already been identified in patients from Britain, The United States, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands.   All of these patients had traveled to India for more affordable medical care.

The discovery was made in a new gene, called New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase or NDM-1.  NDM-1 is carried in bacteria that are resistant to almost all existing antibiotics including the most powerful group called carbapenems.

British Scientist David Livermore, who helped identify the gene, says the bacteria will be difficult to treat if they spread. "What we're seeing here isn't the spread of a single superbug, rather it's the spread of resistance between bacteria. And this resistance includes the carbapenems, which have been the most powerful, the most reliable antibiotics in many infections," he said.

With increasing international travel and medical tourism in search of cheaper medical procedures, this superbug has traveled with patients back to their home countries.

Dr. Anthony Fauci is the Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases in the United States. "The three cases that were reported in June in the United States, all were traceable to people who had been in India," he said.

NDM-1 is  common in hospitals in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India and more widely in local communities where it is spread through contaminated drinking water.  

Professor Livermore and his team collected bacteria samples from many countries and found 44 NDM-1 positive bacteria in the Indian city of Chennai, 26 in Haryana, a state in the north of India, 37 in Britain, and 73 in other cities in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Livermore says that the spread of this gene should not be ignored. "The big fear if we ignore this is that the resistance starts to spread among //// lots of different bacteria and the resistant bacteria spread among lots of patients. And then we would be in real trouble," he said.

Dr. Krishna Banudha of George Washington University says NDM-1 can cause serious infections. "Pneumonia, urinary tract infection, it can cause blood infection and kidney infection," he said.

Global health experts say the pace of manufacturing of antibiotic drugs has not matched the speed and spread of these new bacterial diseases.  Carbapenems, the most powerful group of antibiotics known to work on NDM-1, have been used only when other drugs are ineffective. Scientists say it will take years of research before a new antibiotic comes out.

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