Super-resistant Bacteria, Medical Tourism, and India’s Poor: A Global Health Crisis in the Making

Bacterial infections impervious to the world’s most powerful antibiotics—endowed with the superbug “NDM-1” gene—have so far spread to 12 countries on three continents.

The NDM-1 gene first emerged in 2006 in India, where powerful antibiotics widely available over the counter have allowed drug-resistant bacteria to run rampant. According to one estimate, resistant strains of bacteria now kill 60,000 newborns in India every year. NDM-1 has spread out of India’s hospitals thanks to foreign “medical tourists,” who become infected while undergoing cheap cosmetic surgeries, organ transplants, and other operations in India, and then ferry their infections into their home countries.

Experts worry that NDM-1’s unchecked spread may result in a global health crisis, as there are no antibiotics currently available or in development that can neutralize these superbugs. And yet, stanching the bug will require resolving thorny issues of poverty and economic growth. India has one of the world’s highest burdens of bacterial disease and the majority of its populace are unable to afford lab tests and doctor’s visits. Recent plans to restrict antibiotic sales to those with prescriptions were met with strikes by pharmacists. Meanwhile, the $60 billion global medical tourism industry sends 100,000 patients to India every year. With health-care costs skyrocketing in the West, insurers consider it a “creative solution to the health care crisis” and India expects to net over $2 billion in 2012.