The September edition of the Lancet conferred upon New Delhi the dubious distinction of having a bacterium named after it. The “Indian Superbug,” or New Delhi metallo-β-lactamase 1 (NDM-1), is a bacterium carrying a newly recognized gene that is extremely immune to antibiotics. The Lancet study identified 143 cases of NDM-1 isolates in India (and Pakistan and Bangladesh) and 37 in the United Kingdom. The study claimed that many of the UK cases involved people who had traveled to India or Pakistan within the past year, or “had links” with these countries. However, the broader message being drawn from the study—that Indian hospitals are unsafe for surgery and health tourists should beware—lacks any foundation and makes us suspicious that this hype is instead an attempt to stigmatize the nation’s burgeoning medical tourism industry.
In fact, within days of the publication of the report, the paper’s Chennai-based lead author, Karthikeyan Kumarasamy, dissociated himself from parts of it, claiming that while he did the scientific work, inferences were made and published by his British counterparts without his consent. He told the Hindustan Times:
It’s all hype and not as bad as it sounds. The threat of the NDM-1 is not that big as, say, H1N1 (swine flu). The conclusion that the bacterium was transmitted from India is hypothetical. Unless we analyze samples from across the globe to trace its origin, we can only speculate.
This statement, in addition to the fact that the Lancet report was funded in part by competing pharmaceutical company Wyeth, has Indian hospitals and doctors up in arms about associating the enzyme with New Delhi. They believe that the move had more to do with decelerating the “outsourcing” of healthcare services to India rather than well-founded concerns among the Western medical research community.