Since around last fortnight Indian media of all types and forms, have been fiercely competing with each other to attract the ‘eye balls’ of the viewer/readers through ‘alarming’ news items starting from the situation in the J&K to the ‘rampant corruption’ involving the Commonwealth Games, with of course their usual (over)dose of sensationalism.
In a situation like this to prove ‘enough is JUST NOT enough’, as it were, on August 11, 2010, the well-known medical journal of repute “The Lancet” published a routine article, which further added to the ‘media sensationalism’ in India. The report highlighted that a new ALL antibiotics-resistant “Superbug” originating from Pakistan, appears to have taken its first life. This happened when a patient who was brought to a hospital in Belgium and died in June this year after having met with a car accident in Pakistan, where the diseased was infected by this ‘Superbug”.
This article in ‘The Lancet’ written by a team of international researchers including an Indian, elaborated that a new variety of enzyme named after India’s national capital New Delhi, called, “New Delhi Metallo beta lactamase” in short “NDM 1” turns any bacteria into a deadly “Superbug”, making it resistant to ALL types of antibiotics, leaving virtually no cure in sight.
It was also reported that this deadly “Superbug” has already reached the United Kingdom through patients who acquired it from the hospitals in India. The article reported that the deadly “Superbug” originated from the hospitals of Pakistan and India has the potential to precipitate serious health issues across the world.
“The New Delhi Superbug” was discovered even earlier:
This report generated a sharp reaction in India and from some of its authors regarding its authenticity. Some experts even termed this study as the ‘Western plot to undermine medical tourism in India’.
A leading daily of India reported, “Indian medical journal first documented Superbug”. It stated that that the first ever formal documentation of this ‘Superbug’ was made last year at the P.D. Hinduja National Hospital and Medical Research Centre located in Mumbai. This finding was published in the ‘Journal of the Association of Physicians in India (JAPI’) in March 2010. The reason for the emergence of the ‘Superbug’ was attributed to the ‘worrisome outcome of the indiscriminate use of antibiotics’.
“Unfair to blame the country for the ‘New Delhi’ superbug”:
Reacting to this article, Indian health authorities opined, “It is unfortunate that this new bug, which is an environmental thing, has been attached to a particular country.” The reasons being, “Several superbugs are surviving in nature and they have been reported from countries like Greece, Israel, the U.S., Britain, Brazil and there is no public health threat and no need to unnecessarily sensationalize it”. Some experts, however, feel, “such drug resistant bacteria is a matter of chance, is a global phenomenon and is preventable by sound infection prevention strategies which are followed in any good hospital.”
It has been reported that the ‘National Center for Disease Control of India’ is working on guidelines for appropriately recording these types of nosocomial (hospital acquired) infections.
“Superbug” Hype and Medical Tourism:
Many people of both India and Pakistan have felt since then that in absence of an effective response by the health authorities, especially, in India the fast evolving Medical Tourism initiatives, providing medical services ranging from complicated cardiovascular, orthopedic and cerebrovascular surgery to other life-threatening illnesses, may get adversely impacted.
The root cause and the ‘blame game’:
Experts have opined that overuse and imprudent or irrational use of antibiotics without any surveillance protocol are the root cause for emergence of such ‘Superbugs”, though some Indian parliamentarians have termed this article as the propaganda by some vested interests. It has been alleged that the study was funded by the Wellcome Trust and Wyeth, the two global pharmaceutical companies who produce antibiotics to treat such conditions, together with the European Union.
In this context it is worth mentioning that ‘The Lancet’ article in its disclosures says:
“Kartikeyan K Kumarasamy has received a travel grant from Wyeth… David M Livermore has received conference support from numerous pharmaceutical companies, and also holds shares in AstraZeneca, Merck, Pfizer, Dechra, and GlaxoSmithKline, and, as Enduring Attorney, manages further holdings in GlaxoSmithKline and Eco Animal Health. All other authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.”
Such a situation has not been reported for the first time:
This type of situation has indeed some precedents. When ‘MRSA’ was reported for the first time, it caused similar scare. However, this time many experts feel that it is too early to conclude whether or not ‘NDM-1’ will eventually prove to be more dangerous than ‘MRSA’.
Several such “Superbugs”, as stated earlier, have already been reported from countries like Greece, Israel, USA, UK, and Brazil. However, as I know, in the battle against infectious diseases involving both the scientists and the bacteria, the later had always to succumb, in the long run.
‘NDM-1′, as well, perhaps will be no exception. All concerned MUST continue to make it happen, not by mere wishful thinking but by establishing a strong procedural mechanism to keep a careful vigil on the reasons for emergence of drug resistant bacterial strains in the country.
The World Health Organization (WHO) perspective:
On Saturday, August 21, 2010 the WHO commented, “while multi-drug resistant bacteria are not new and will continue to appear, this development requires monitoring and further study to understand the extent and modes of transmission, and to define the most effective measures for control”.
The hype created and motives attributed by the media and the politicians over one such routine scientific papers published in a medical journal of international repute, in my view are unwarranted. There are built in systems within the scientific discourse for raising questions and even challenge any findings. Remarks made by one of the authors of the article to the media, perhaps added more fuel to the fire. Politicians seem to have joined the bandwagon to politicize even a benign medical issue captured in the said article. In an era where news items mean “sensationalism” and ‘politicization’ of most such news items is the order of the day, the civil society should be helped to understand the core issues behind all such raging debates.
Besides the reasons, as discussed earlier, attributed to repeated emergence of such “Superbugs”, one more issue I could foresee in today’s environment compared to the same in the past. This issue possibly lies in the shift in focus of pharmaceutical R&D from discovery of novel drugs for infectious diseases to discovery of drugs for non-infectious chronic illnesses like, metabolic disorders (diabetes), hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, psychiatric disorders, cancer, vaccines etc. This shift in the R&D focus has obviously been prompted by the tilt in the prevalence of the disease pattern towards the same direction.
Perhaps for this reason, one notices hardly any significant and novel molecules in the research pipelines of either global or local pharmaceutical companies to treat such antibiotic-resistant infections. It is understandebly not an ‘either/or’ situation. However, as we all know, in life-threatening conditions both types of drugs have their respective places to save precious lives. Let us ponder over it.
By Tapan Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.