Mon, Dec 08, 2014 - Page 9 News List

‘Superbugs’ killing Indian babies pose global threat

As the overuse of antibiotics and chronic sanitation issues that plague the nation breed bacteria resistant to most known drugs that are wreaking devastation locally, similar problems abroad are causing worldwide alarm

By Gardiner Harris  /  NY Times News Service, AMRAVATI, India

Illustration: Yusha

A deadly epidemic that could have global implications is quietly sweeping India, leaving among the many victims in it wake tens of thousands of newborns who are dying because once-miraculous cures no longer work.

These infants were born with bacterial infections that are resistant to most known antibiotics, with more than 58,000 dying last year as a result, a recent study found. While that is still a fraction of the nearly 800,000 newborns who die annually in India, the nation’s pediatricians say the rising toll of resistant infections could soon swamp efforts to improve the country’s abysmal infant mortality rate: Nearly one-third of the world’s newborn deaths occur in India.

“Reducing newborn deaths in India is one of the most important public health priorities in the world and this will require treating an increasing number of neonates who have sepsis and pneumonia,” said Vinod Paul, who led the study and is chief of pediatrics at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

“But if resistant infections keep growing, that progress could slow, stop, or even reverse itself, and that would be a disaster for not only India, but the entire world,” he said.

At neonatal intensive care wards in five Indian states, doctors reported being overwhelmed by such cases.

“Five years ago, we almost never saw these kinds of infections,” said Neelam Kler, chairwoman of the department of neonatology at New Delhi’s Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, one of India’s most prestigious private hospitals. “Now, close to 100 percent of the babies referred to us have multi-drug-resistant infections. It’s scary.”

These babies are part of a disquieting outbreak. A growing chorus of researchers say evidence is now overwhelmingly showing that a significant share of the bacteria present in India — in its water, sewage, animals, soil and even its mothers — are immune to nearly all antibiotics.

Newborns are particularly vulnerable because their immune systems are fragile, leaving little time for doctors to find a drug that works, but everyone is at risk.

Uppalapu Shrinivas, one of India’s most famous musicians, died on Sept. 19 at the age of 45 because of an infection that doctors could not cure.

While far from alone in creating antibiotic resistance, India’s resistant infections have already begun to migrate.

“India’s dreadful sanitation, uncontrolled use of antibiotics and overcrowding, coupled with a complete lack of monitoring the problem has created a tsunami of antibiotic resistance that is reaching just about every country in the world,” Cardiff University professor of microbiology Timothy Walsh said.

Indeed, researchers have already found “superbugs” carrying a genetic code first identified in India — NDM1 (New Delhi metallo-beta lactamase 1) — around the world, including in France, Japan, Oman and the US.

Anju Thakur’s daughter was born prematurely a year ago and became one of the epidemic’s victims in Amravati, a city in central India. After the birth, doctors had assured Thakur that despite weighing just 1.8kg, her daughter would be fine; her husband gave sweets to their neighbors in celebration.

Three days later, Thakur knew something was wrong. Her daughter’s stomach swelled, her limbs stiffened and her skin thickened — classic signs of a blood infection. As a precaution, doctors had given the baby two powerful antibiotics soon after birth. They switched to other antibiotics once and then again, but nothing worked. Thakur offered a puja, or prayer, to the goddess Durga, but the baby’s condition worsened and she died at just seven days old.

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