Medical tourists who are going to South Asian countries for cheaper medical treatment risk picking up and spreading a new superbug.

This gene, known as New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase, or NDM-1, was found in patients in Britain, who may have contacted it while receiving treatment in countries such as India and Pakistan.

The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal published a report this week claiming that researchers found this new gene to be common in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

NDM-1 is highly resistant to almost all antibiotics, including the most powerful class called carbapenems.

With increasing popularity of medical tourism, the scientists said they feared this new superbug could soon spread around the world.

Prof Timothy Walsh who led the research team, examined bacteria samples from hospital patients in Chennai and Haryana and also from patients referred to Britain’s national reference laboratory between 2007 and last year. They found 44 cases of NDM-1-positive bacteria in Chennai, 26 in Haryana, 37 in Britain, and 73 in other sites in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

Many of the infected British patients had travelled to these countries for different medical treatments, including cosmetic surgery, kidney or bone marrow transplants, dialysis, pregnancy care or burns treatment.

Reaction from the medical industry in India was expectedly strong.

The medical tourism industry in India has called this negative report an attempt to discredit a business that earned the country an estimated 20 billion rupees (US$423 million) last year.

Dr Yatin Mehta at Medanta, one of India’s best hospitals, dismissed these reports and claimed the hygiene standards in India’s hospitals are better than those of the National Health Service in Britain.

‘Multi-drug resistance can be found anywhere in the world,’ said Dr V.M. Katoch, Secretary for Health Research who also chairs the Indian Council of Medical Research. ‘It is unfair to blame India for that.’

This act of naming Superbug after New Delhi, while none of the samples collected was from Delhi and its presence in UK itself indigenously, appears a ‘Racially’ and commercially motivated act to malign Indian Medical tourism sector.” said Dr K M Kapoor, Senior Consultant, Cosmetic Surgery at Fortis Hospital, Mohali and a Medical Tourism exponent in India.

Looks like this “fingers pointing” will continue for a while.

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