Scientists find superbugs in Delhi drinking water

LONDON Thu Apr 7, 2011 3:57pm EDT

A girl waits to collect drinking water from a water tanker in New Delhi, March 21, 2007. REUTERS/Parth Sanyal

A girl waits to collect drinking water from a water tanker in New Delhi, March 21, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Parth Sanyal

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LONDON (Reuters) - A gene that makes bugs highly resistant to almost all known antibiotics has been found in bacteria in water supplies in New Delhi used by local people for drinking, washing and cooking, scientists said on Thursday.

The NDM 1 gene, which creates what some experts describe as "super superbugs," has spread to germs that cause cholera and dysentery, and is circulating freely in other bacteria in the Indian city capital of 14 million people, the researchers said.

"The inhabitants of New Delhi are continually being exposed to multidrug-resistant and NDM 1-positive bacteria," said Mark Toleman of Britain's Cardiff University School of Medicine, who published the findings in a study on Thursday.

A "substantial number" of them are consuming such bacteria on a daily basis, he told a briefing in London. "We believe we have discovered a very significant underlying source of NDM 1 in the capital city of India," he said.

NDM 1, or New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase 1, makes bacteria resistant to almost all antibiotics, including the most powerful class, called carbapenems.

It first emerged in India three years ago and has now spread across the world. It has been found in a wide variety of bugs, including familiar pathogens like Escherichia coli, or E. coli.

No new drugs are on the horizon for at least 5-6 years to tackle it and experts are concerned that only a few major drug companies, such as GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca, still have strong antibiotic development programs.

Toleman's study, carried out with Cardiff University's Timothy Walsh and published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal, investigated how common NDM 1-producing bacteria are in community waste seepage -- such as water pools or rivulets in streets -- and tap water in urban New Delhi.

The researchers collected 171 swabs from seepage water and 50 public tap water samples from sites within a 12 kilometer radius of central New Delhi between September and October 2010.

The NDM 1 gene was found in two of the drinking-water samples and 51 of seepage samples, the researchers said, and bacteria positive for NDM 1 were grown from two drinking-water samples and 12 seepage samples.

"We would expect that perhaps as many as half a million people are carrying NDM 1-producing bacteria as normal (gut) flora in New Dehli alone," Toleman said.

Experts say the spread of superbugs threatens whole swathes of modern medicine, which cannot be practiced if doctors have no effective antibiotics to ward off infections during surgery, intensive care or cancer treatments like chemotherapy.

In a commentary about Walsh and Toleman's findings, Mohd Shahid from Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College and Hospital in Uttar Pradesh, India, said global action was needed.

"The potential for wider international spread of ... NDM 1 is real and should not be ignored," he wrote.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has designated April 7 as World Health Day and under the slogan "No action today, no cure tomorrow" it is campaigning about the risks of life-saving antibiotics losing their healing power.

"We are at a critical point in time where antibiotic resistance is reaching unprecedented levels," said Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO's regional director for Europe.

"Given the growth of travel and trade in Europe and across the world, people should be aware that until all countries tackle this, no country alone can be safe."

(Editing by Ben Hirschler)

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Comments (6)
Emerson Destin : what I did not hear from the artical is that people were being adversely impacted by this bug in the location where it is said to be found. Yes, people consume the bug but they are still standing strong. Did I get this right?

Apr 07, 2011 6:30am EDT  --  Report as abuse
heymanlook23 wrote:
The people over at IBM just made a new type of technology using “plastic nanoparticles” that kills super bugs and drug resistant bacterias. I just read about it today. Maybe the new IBM invention can cure this? That would be great, a new worldwide health problem, and someone already has a solution maybe at IBM!

Here is a clip from what I read today, April 7th 2011.

“IBM researchers created a new type of nanoparticles that are capable of destroying the membrane walls of certain drug-resistant bacteria strains, leaving the cells to harmlessly degrade without any trace. The new system works by using biodegradable plastic to engineer electrically charged nanoparticles that in turn attract to the bacteria’s opposite charge, in turn destroying the membrane walls hence the cell entirely.”

Apr 07, 2011 8:45am EDT  --  Report as abuse
gunnaraasen wrote:
@Emerson_Destin The article states that the bug resides in the gut where it is harmless. However, the bug might not be as harmless if it happens to be transferred to another part of the body during a surgery. This would leave the patient at significant risk since there would be no way to fight the infection.

Also, there is probably some concern about horizontal gene transfer to a more harmful bug (like E. Coli, as noted in the article). This could give a completely unrelated bacteria a similar amount of antibiotic resistance.

Apr 07, 2011 10:05am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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