Scientists say they suspect superbugs resistant to all forms of antibiotics have taken hold in India, but their presence is not reported by doctors who lack the proper diagnostic technology to identify them.
In 2015, an estimated 6,70,000 people in the European Union were infected by a superbug, Staphylococcus epidermis, resulting in 33,110 deaths, according to a study published in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal.
Scientists in the Bangalore Life Sciences Cluster see a parallel. “A lot of deaths in India are actually infection deaths, perhaps caused by superbugs, which we do not know anything about because healthcare workers do not have the diagnostic tools to identify the cause,” said Dr Taslimarif Saiyed, CEO and Director, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (known as C-Camp), Department of Biotechnology, Government of India. C-Camp was recently selected to join Carb-X, a global partnership of 10 international organisations to combat anti-microbial resistance in the world.
“Doctors are sometimes unable to identify specific pathogens, which are then treated with a range of antibiotics until the problem is solved. Sometimes this approach works, but in other cases, a range of antibiotics do not work. If the full range of antibiotics fail, it results in the loss of the patient,” said Dr Saiyed, adding that hospitals do not study clinical isolates in an attempt to understand which pathogen was responsible for the death.
This view was echoed by Dr Rich Lawson, a senior project manager for Carb-X, which as the world’s largest public-private partnership, is involved in supporting medical innovators around the world to develop anti-microbial resistance solutions.
“It is hard for doctors to classify microbial infections, which often leads medical personnel to attribute patient deaths to other causes such as cancer, pneumonia, etc. Often, doctors don’t realise that a bacterial superbug might have been responsible for the death,” Dr Lawson said.
C-Camp currently supports 110 startups across India, which Dr Saiyed believes will offer hospitals the tools they need to fight the ‘bacterial tsunami’, which is on the horizon. One of these inventions by a Bengaluru-based startup tackles the problem of hospital ventilator-transmitted pneumonia, a leading cause of deaths in Intensive Care Units.
“Hospitals are doing the best they can and using drugs as best they can but without specific identification of the bacteria responsible for the infection and without a targeted approach to treatment, it is just not good enough,” Dr Lawson said.
Lawson hinted that researchers are close to unveiling a new class of antibiotics. “This is a significant achievement. There hasn’t been a new class of antibiotics to tackle gram-negative infections in my lifetime and I am 56 years old,” he said.
Gram-negative bacteria, with tough cell walls, are more resistant to the current class of antibiotics.