September 2016 ‘Fact Sheet’ of the World Health Organization (W.H.O) raised a red flag on fast increasing incidence of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR). It poses a serious threat to global public health, more than ever before. Consequently, effective prevention and treatment of an ever-increasing and complex range of infections caused by bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi are becoming more and more challenging.
In this situation, various medical procedures, such as, organ transplantation, cancer chemotherapy, diabetes management and major surgery like, caesarean sections or hip replacements, invite much avoidable a very high element of risk.
Further, a July 2014 paper titled ‘Antibiotic resistance needs global solutions’, published in ‘The Lancet’ reports increase of incidences of drug-resistant bacteria at an alarming rate. In fact, antibiotic resistance is one of the most serious threats in the history of medicine, and new antibiotics and alternative strategies should be sought as soon as possible to tackle this complex problem.
Another more recent paper titled ‘Fixed-dose combination antibiotics in India: global perspectives’, published in ‘The Lancet’ on August, 2016 finds that nowhere in the world this problem is as stark as in India. It emphasizes that the crude infectious disease mortality rate in India today is 416.75 per 100,000 persons, which is twice the rate prevailing in the United States. Misuse, or rather abuse, of Antibiotics is a major driver of resistance. In 2010, India was the world’s largest consumer of antibiotics for human health, the paper says.
Thus, this critical issue calls for urgent action across all government sectors and the society, in general, as W.H.O cautions.
The Devil is also in irrational antimicrobial FDCs:
The reasons for the fast spread of antimicrobial resistance are many, and each one is well documented. One such factor is the use of irrational antimicrobial FDCs. Some of these have already been banned by the Union Government of India, though continue to be manufactured, promoted, prescribed, sold and consumed by the innocent patients unknowingly.
In this article, I shall focus on the banned FDCs of such kind, highlighting how the consequential serious threat to public health and safety is repeatedly getting lost in the cacophony of protracted court room arguments against these bans.
Irrational FDCs and antimicrobial resistance:
That ‘irrational’ FDCs of antibiotics very often hasten the spread of antimicrobial resistance, is now a well-documented fact.
The ‘National Policy for Containment of Antimicrobial Resistance in India 2011’ clearly recognizes that: “Antimicrobial resistance in pathogens causing important communicable diseases has become a matter of great public health concern globally including our country. Resistance has emerged even to newer, more potent antimicrobial agents like carbapenems.” The Policy also recommends removal of irrational antibiotic FDCs from the hospital drug list.
‘The Lancet’ article of August, 2016, as mentioned above, also reiterates, while citing examples, that “Studies of several antibiotic combinations, such as meropenem and sulbactam, have reported no additional advantage over their individual constituents, and have been reported to cause toxic reactions and promote resistance. Despite repeated investigations into the shortcomings of some FDCs, such drugs are still being manufactured and promoted on the Indian drug market.”
Why does it matter so much?
Corrective regulatory measures to contain the spread of antibiotic resistance are absolutely necessary in India, for the sake of the patients. According to a paper titled ‘Antibiotic Resistance in India: Drivers and Opportunities for Action’, published in the PLOS Medicine on March 2, 2016: “Out of around 118 antibiotic FDCs available in the Indian market, 80 (68 percent) are not registered with the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO). Moreover, 63 (19 percent) of around 330 banned FDCs are antibiotics.”
The global relevance:
Such regulatory bans of antimicrobials FDCs in India are important from a global perspective too, as ‘The Lancet’ article of August 2016 observes.
The article recapitulates that the ‘New Delhi metallo-β-lactamase’ – an enzyme that causes bacteria to be resistant to antibiotics, was first reported in India in 2008 and is now found worldwide. The growth of worldwide trade and travel has allowed resistant microorganisms to spread rapidly to distant countries and continents. In addition, some of these banned FDCs in India are reported to be exported to African and Asian countries too.
That said, each country will also need to play a significant role to curtail the abuse or misuse of antibiotics, locally. I find a glimpse of that in England, besides a few other countries.
A research paper of Antibiotic Research UK and EXASOL dated November 12, 2015, concluded that overall antibiotic prescriptions are coming down across England. However, the same paper also articulated that in the deprived areas of the country, such as Clacton-on-Sea, antibiotic prescribing rates are almost twice the national average.
Some big MNCs are no different:
In the Government’s ban list of irrational FDCs even some top brands of pharma MNCs feature, including antibiotic FDC of antibiotics. For example, on Mar 14, 2016, Reuters reported that one of the largest pharma MNCs operating in India – Abbott Laboratories, was selling a FDC of two powerful antibiotics Cefixime and Azithromycin, without approval of the DCGI. This could possibly be a legacy factor, arising out of its acquisition of a good number of branded generic drugs, together with their management, from a domestic pharma company. Abbott, otherwise is well regarded by many as a distinguished global institution, practicing high standards of business ethics and values, across the world.
Be that as it may, this powerful antibiotic cocktail that poses huge health risk to patients has reportedly not received marketing approval in the major global pharma markets, such as, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France or Japan.
The Reuters report also elaborates that the drug ‘had been promoted and administered as a treatment for a broad array of illnesses, including colds, fevers, urinary tract infections, drug-resistant typhoid and sexually transmitted diseases.’ It also found chemists who were selling the drug to prevent post-operative infection and for respiratory problems. After the ban, the company has reportedly stopped manufacturing and sales of this antibiotic FDC.
Irrational FDC ban – a significant corrective measure:
Keeping all this in perspective, the regulatory ban on irrational FDCs of antibiotics on March 10, 2016, along with products falling in several different therapy areas, was a significant regulatory measure, among many others, to contain the menace of AMR in India.
Unfortunately, quite a lot of these formulations are still in the market, actively promoted by their manufacturers and widely prescribed by the doctors, till date. This is mainly because, to protect the revenue and profit generated from these brands, concerned pharma companies have obtained an injunction from various high courts against the ban, which was notified by the Government, earlier.
Thwarting FDC ban – a key issue:
Looking back, 294 FDCs were banned by the DCGI in 2007. At that time also, the same important issue of patients’ health, safety and economic interest got caught in an intriguing legal quagmire. As a result, implementation of the Government’s decision to ban of these irrational FDCs got delayed, indefinitely.
Added to this, irrational antimicrobial FDCs featuring in the ban list of March 10, 2016, got trapped in exactly the same legal battle, yet again. Thus, repeated stalling of Government ban on irrational FDCs, including antibiotics, continue to remain a key health and safety issue in India.
The latest development:
In September 2016, the Union Government has reportedly moved the Supreme Court of India in defense of its March 2016 ban on irrational FDCs.
In its petition, the Union Government has reportedly urged that all cases against the orders related to ban of ‘irrational’ FDCs, now being heard in various High Courts across the country, be transferred to the apex court and heard as a single case. The move is expected to cut any ambiguity that could arise from differing verdicts between high courts.
In case of a verdict favoring the ban of all the notified irrational FDCs, scores of patients will be benefited by not just falling victims to possible health menace arising out of such unjustifiable drugs, as the Government argues, but also due to expected containment of rapid spread of deadly antimicrobial resistance in the country.
With the ban of irrational FDCs, the Union Ministry of Health has taken one of the much-needed steps to restrict antibiotic resistance in India, besides addressing other health and financial menace caused by such drugs.
The support of the Apex court of India to urgently resolve this legal jig-saw-puzzle, would also help control, though not in a holistic way, the scary antibiotic resistance challenge in India. In that process India would possibly be able to contribute its little bit towards the antibiotic resistance challenge, across the world, if we consider the ‘New Delhi metallo-β-lactamase’ case as a glaring example in this area.
It is, therefore, widely expected that for the greater public interest, the honorable Supreme Court may view this important health and safety issue accordingly, while pronouncing its final verdict. If and when it happens, hopefully soon, the prevailing industry practice in the country to make profits with dubious drug cocktails sans any robust medical rationale, basically at the cost of patients, can’t possibly be thwarted any longer, and will be effectively implemented on the ground.
By: Tapan J. 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.