People who embark on "health tourism" trips to India and Pakistan to get cheaper medical treatment risk picking up and spreading a new superbug, according to an international team of scientists.
The researchers found a new gene called New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase, or NDM-1, in patients in Asia and in Britain. NDM-1 makes bacteria highly resistant to almost all antibiotics, including the most powerful class called carbapenems.
With international travel for healthcare on the rise, the scientists said they feared this new superbug could soon spread around the world.
In a study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal on Wednesday, the researchers found that NDM-1 is becoming more common in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan and is starting to be imported back to Britain in patients returning from these countries.
"India also provides cosmetic surgery for other Europeans and Americans, and it is likely NDM-1 will spread worldwide," the scientists, led by Timothy Walsh from Britain's Cardiff University, wrote in a report of their findings.
Multi drug-resistant bacteria are already a growing problem in hospitals across the world, marked by the rise of "superbug" infections like methicillin-resistant Staphyloccus aureus (MRSA).
Walsh and his international team collected bacteria samples from hospital patients in two places in India, Chennai and Haryana, and from patients referred to Britain's national reference laboratory between 2007 and 2009.
They found 44 NDM-1-positive bacteria in Chennai, 26 in Haryana, 37 in Britain, and 73 in other sites in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan.
Several of the British NDM-1 positive patients had recently travelled to India or Pakistan for hospital treatment, including cosmetic surgery, they said.
Most worryingly, NDM-1-producing bacteria are resistant to many antibiotics including carbapenems, the scientists said, a class of the drugs generally reserved for emergency use and to treat caused by other multi-resistant bacteria such as MRSA and C-Difficile.
Experts commenting on Walsh's findings said it was important to be alert to the new bug and start screening for it early.
"If this emerging public health threat is ignored, sooner or later the medical community could be confronted with carbapenem-resistant (bacteria) that cause common infections, resulting in treatment failures with substantial increases in health-care costs," Johann Pitout from the University of Calgary in Canada wrote in a commentary in same journal.