'Superbug' gene spurs global warning

The bacteria, which originated in the subcontinent but has appeared in Europe and North America, though not the UAE, is resistant to virtually every known antibiotic.

LONDON // A new "superbug" resistant to even some of the most powerful antibiotics has been discovered in patients in hospitals across the globe. Scientists warned yesterday that the spread of the drug-resistant bacteria - blamed on "medical tourism" and international travel - could pose a health problem worldwide by making antibiotics useless A new gene, New Delhi metallo-ß-lactamase (NDM-1), has emerged, allowing bacteria to become resistant to virtually every known antibiotic, according to an article published in the medical journal The Lancet.

Experts fear that NDM-1 could jump to other strains of bacteria that are already resistant to many antibiotics, ultimately producing infections that could spread from person to person and be almost impossible to treat. Until recently, NDM-1 was believed to have been restricted to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. But 37 patients from the UK have now found to be carriers, most of them after visiting the subcontinent for medical procedures.

An international group of researchers - which has identified one strain of bacteria that is so resistant it is, in effect, untreatable - found similar infections in the US, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands. There have been no confirmed cases in the UAE, said Dr Hassan Shurie, the head of infection control at the Dubai Health Authority. "The infection control policies in this country are very strong but no country is immune."

NDM-1 can exist inside different bacteria, making them resistant to one of the most powerful groups of antibiotics - carbapenems - which are generally reserved for use in emergencies and on difficult infections. "The potential of NDM-1 to be a worldwide public health problem is great, and co-ordinated international surveillance is needed," said Timothy Walsh, of Cardiff University, a co-author of report.

Johann Pitout, from the division of microbiology at the University of Calgary in Canada, called for international surveillance of the bacteria, particularly in countries that actively promote medical tourism. Dr David Livermore, the report's co-author and director of antibiotic resistance monitoring at the UK Health Protection Agency, said: "The findings of this paper show that resistance to one of the major groups of antibiotics, the carbapenems, is widespread in India.

"This is important because carbapenems were often the last 'good' antibiotics active against bacteria that already were resistant to more standard drugs." Scientists say that the way to stop the spread of NDM-1 lies in the speedy identification of the gene and the subsequent isolation of patients. Normal infection control measures are simply not effective. @Email:dsapsted@thenational.ae