August 14, 2010

superbug, funded research and the hype

Lancet has published a research finding on pathogenic bacteria, in which it said that a particular strain of bacteria were resistant to medicine and hence pose global health problem. The multi-resistant bacteria found in various locations in India, Pakistan and UK were found to be related.

So far so good.

But what bothers the Indians who have raised a big hue and cry over the research is -

  • that the bug [NDM-1] has been named after New Delhi, so as to give the impression that New Delhi is dangerous place to visit;
  • that it has been tried to establish that the bug originated in India and is spreading from here;
  • that such guided research is often done with a commercial motive - in this case, it could be to damage the medical tourism industry that is giving treatment to foreigners at much less rates than their home countries; and
  • that a deadly superbug MRSA is already there in western countries and MDM-1 is not more drug resistant or virulent than superbugs.

The lead scientist, Timothy R Walsh, has countered it, with the following:

  • that naming of the bug is on traditional lines; this bug was first reported in a Swedish patient who had contacted the disease in New Delhi;
  • that of the 37 people who have been researched in UK, 17 had surgeries in India or Pakistan; and
  • that a large number of Indian scientists were part of the team that did the research and they stick to the findings.

Medicos in the western countries have started hyping the research and adding their own to convince patients to pay exorbitant fees in their home countries rather than go to India for medical procedures and get infected by a bug for which there is no medicine. US health officials have confirmed 3 cases, in people who had received treatment in India.

The Indian government says that the report is alarmist, and the advice given at the end of the report against taking treatment in India is to frighten potential medical tourists. Moreover, the research is funded by one of the biggest antibiotic pharma company. It is also hypothetical, without proof for the same, to say that the superbug really originated in India.

A co-author, Karthikeyan Kumaraswamy, has also disassociated himself from the report. "We have to find if there’s some ulterior motive of some pharmaceutical industry,” he has said. He has also said, “Without my knowledge some of the interpretations were written in the report."

All pathogenic bacteria are known to become resistant to the available medicines and turn into superbugs, and as new medicines are developed a superbug can be tackled and some new superbug emerges. This battle between medicines and pathogens is known since the time of penicillin. In fact, some months back, some Indian scientists themselves had warned against some other bactria getting resistant to known medicines. Such research helps scientists in their quest for more potent medicines and helps governments worldwide in becoming more sensitive and prepared to stop infections from becoming pandemic. What hurts, however, is that this type of research is used to propagate fear and make fast buck as happened in the case of swine flu. It is sad that even a respected magazine like Lancet allows itself to be a vehicle to guided conclusions.

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