Controversy over NDM-1 'Superbug' Ignites Uproar in India

Klebsiella pneumoniae, the bacterium in which NDM-1 was identified. Wikipedia

A study in a British medical journal reporting the existence of a drug-resistant "superbug" has ignited a controversy within Indian medical circles.

The Lancet Infectious Diseases reported that antibiotics have proved so far ineffective against a bacterial gene, which was found in patients traveling to South Asia for medical treatment. NDM-1 has been linked to the overuse of antibiotics. Lancet found that 37 Britons receiving medical treatment in South Asia carried NDM-1 back with them to the United Kingdom.

"The potential of NDM-1 to be a worldwide public health problem is great, and co-ordinated international surveillance is needed," Lancet wrote on its website.

The Indian health establishment has since downplayed the report. Karthikeyan Kumarasamy, lead author of a March report in the Journal of the Association of Physicians in India outlining the risks posed by NDM-1, now says the warnings have been overblown.

"It's all hype and not as bad as it sounds," Kumarasamy was quoted by India's Hindustan Times. "The threat of the NDM-1 is not that big as, say, H1NI (swine flu),the popular press has since deemed it."

"The conclusion that the bacteria was transmitted from India is hypothetical. Unless we analyze samples from across the globe to trace its origin, we can only speculate," he continued.

NDM-1, an acronym for New Delhi metallo-lactamase-1, was identified last year after an Indian hospital admitted a patient from Sweden. Meanwhile, AFP is reporting the first NDM-1-related death, an unidentified Belgian man who was treated in Pakistan following an automobile accident.

The controversy over the report of a so-called superbug has also left the Indian government particularly displeased with some officials pointing a finger of blame at foreign pharmaceutical firms for fanning the flames. Speaking with the Bombay, Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad said the Lancet study had been underwritten by foreign drug makers.

"It (superbug) is universal and is found in the intestine of humans and animals. It is wrong to say that it is found only in India and Pakistan. They say it was found in patients who visit India and Pakistan. The study nowhere mentions if the bacteria were found even before those persons visited India." In a similar vein, opposition leader S.S. Ahluwalia was quoted in the The Hindustan Times quoted saying: "It may be a sinister design of multinational companies around the world," he said, adding that with globalization, it was not just populations that were migrating, but also virus [sic] and bacteria."