There has been much brouhaha in India during the last two days over a recently published paper in the journal, Lancet Infectious Diseases. The paper outlines the emergence of major antibiotic resistance in enterobacteria isolated from patients in UK, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The appearance of bacteria resistant to the strongest of antibiotics is a cause for global concern, especially in these days of globe-trotting and in light of lack of new antibiotics developed by drug companies recently.
The authors conjecture is that patients in the UK who were found to harbor this ‘superbug’ picked it up during surgeries – some during health tourism visits – from the subcontinent. Needless to say, the results of the study has been (excuse the pun) a bitter pill for Indians. The medical community is upset, the politicians and media are outraged and screaming ‘Western conspiracy‘.
Unfortunately most of this anger is highly misplaced. I strongly recommend reading Bhalomanush’s well-argued (and in the face of some of the stunning ignorance out there, highly restrained) response debunking much of the media outrage.
I just wanted to add a few words of my own.
1. The main problem I see with the Indian reaction is the usual cry of victim-hood (MNCs and the ‘West ‘are out to get us and our health tourism industry) that is unbecoming of a country that wants to be global player.
The mature (and the right) way of dealing with such a publication would have been a statement explaining that India has taken serious note of this study in major journal and will be conducting its own investigations, at the same time reassuring people with numbers (number of cases small compared to the vast number of patients in India) etc. Instead we’ve taken on a jstrange ingoistic tone mixed with juvenile petulance: blaming the scientists for spreading falsehoods and finger-pointing like a school kid (suggesting that the virus is everywhere, why point to us?).
The best (worst) example of this over-the-top reaction is the idiotic notion that naming the protein that confers resistance to the bacteria (NDM1 = New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase 1) after our capital is somehow a huge insult to our nation.
National pride that is so easily dented is not really a pride worth having.
2. There seems to be no concern in the media about the actual consequences of antibiotic resistant bacterial strains. The rise of resistant strains is a real, fearful possibility in our antibiotic munching culture. What is anyone doing to ensure that such strains do not turn into a large public health problem in our country?
The medical tourism industry and most private hospitals in India are restricted to an elite population. These are the places where disinfection and sanitary methods are at their best. One wonders about the consequences of these bugs turning up in regular hospitals.
I am quite surprised that the supposed champions-of-the-underprivileged Indian media is rather silent on this (OTOH, actual medical and health concerns such as this don’t make good screaming matches on TV).
(Sakshi has a longer post detailing this concern)
3. This is not to say the western media is not totally guilty of hyping things a bit and spreading panic and fear. As Bhalomanush has pointed out, the misrepresentation of the UK and other international media is equally disgusting.
But again, a kicking and screaming response to such smearing doesn’t do anyone any good.
4. The Indian media claims that the lead author of the study, an Indian doctor, Karthikeyan Kumaraswamy, has ‘retracted’ the study or at least distanced himself. If this is true, then there has been gross misconduct on the part of either Dr. Kumaraswamy or Lancet. As is true for any scientific publication, final manuscripts have to be vetted by all authors. As the footnote in the paper says:
All authors were involved in the compiling of the report and approved the final version.
If something was added after Dr. K looked through the draft and it was something he did not agree with it, he can and should take it up with Lancet. Retracting is not done in front of TV.
[actually, if you see the actual video of the interview with Dr. Kumaraswamy, he doesn’t really say anything that’s related to dissociating himself!]
5. Finally, thrown into this conspiracy theory mix is the fact that Glaxo-SmithKline recently published a paper in the online version of the journal Nature, where they have identified a compound that binds to a bacterial processive enzyme. It is possible that such a compound could escape the antibody destroying enzyme of the resistant bacteria and kill them.
Firstly, do note: the paper describes the snap-shot of the protein in its inhibited state i.e in a state where it is in a crystallized form. How such a compound succeeds as a drug is anybody’s guess with details such as efficacy, safety and stability that needs to be worked out (over a period of years).
And to those seeing another conspiracy in this, I really doubt that GSK could have pulled off the timing of their publication (which btw is currently an advanced publication online only, has not come out in an issue) to coincide with the Lancet publication. More likely, it was a fortuitous occasion and the GSK PR department has jumped on it seeing a great opportunity to raise share prices. This is borderline dishonesty because, as I mentioned above, there is really no way to determine if the compound will be an actual drug and such drugs aren’t expected to be produced in a short time.
There are few other issues e.g the constant touting of the supposed ‘conflict of interest’ that have been covered by fellow bloggers, so I am not going there.