Lill-Karin Skaret, a 67-year-old grandmother from Namsos, Norway, was traveling to a lakeside vacation villa near India’s port city of Kochi in March 2010 when her car collided with a truck. She was rushed to the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, her right leg broken and her artificial hip so damaged that replacing it required 12 hours of surgery.
Three weeks later and walking with the aid of crutches, Skaret was relieved to be home. Then her doctor gave her upsetting news. Mutant germs that most antibiotics can’t kill had entered her bladder, probably from a contaminated hospital catheter in India. She risked a life-threatening infection if the bacteria invaded her bloodstream — a waiting game over which she had limited control, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its June issue.
“I got a call from my doctor who told me they found this bug in me and I had to take precautions,” Skaret remembers. “I was very afraid.”
Skaret was lucky. Eventually, her body rid itself of the bacteria, and she escaped harm from a new type of superbug that scientists warn is spreading faster, further and in more alarming ways than any they’ve encountered. Researchers say the epicenter is India, where drugs created to fight disease have taken a perverse turn by making many ailments harder to treat.
India’s $12.4 billion pharmaceutical industry manufactures almost a third of the world’s antibiotics, and people use them so liberally that relatively benign and beneficial bacteria are becoming drug immune in a pool of resistance that thwarts even high-powered antibiotics, the so-called remedies of last resort.
Poor hygiene has spread resistant germs into India’s drains, sewers and drinking water, putting millions at risk of drug-defying infections. Antibiotic residues from drug manufacturing, livestock treatment and medical waste have entered water and sanitation systems, exacerbating the problem.
As the superbacteria take up residence in hospitals, they’re compromising patient care and tarnishing India’s image as a medical tourism destination.
“There isn’t anything you could take with you traveling that would be useful against these superbugs,” says Robert Moellering Jr., a professor of medical research at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
The germs — and the gene that confers their heightened powers — are jumping beyond India. More than 40 countries have discovered the genetically altered superbugs in blood, urine and other patient specimens. Canada, France, Italy, Kosovo and South Africa have found them in people with no travel links, suggesting the bugs have taken hold there.
Drug resistance of all sorts is bringing the planet closer to what the World Health Organization calls a post-antibiotic era.
“Things as common as strep throat or a child’s scratched knee could once again kill,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said at a March medical meeting in Copenhagen. “Hip replacements, organ transplants, cancer chemotherapy and care of preterm infants would become far more difficult or even too dangerous to undertake.”
Already, current varieties of resistant bacteria kill more than 25,000 people in Europe annually, the WHO said in March. The toll means at least 1.5 billion euros ($2 billion) in extra medical costs and productivity losses each year.
“If this latest bug becomes entrenched in our hospitals, there is really nothing we can turn to,” says Donald E. Low, head of Ontario’s public health lab in Toronto. “Its potential is to be probably greater than any other organism.”