Doctor: Be Vigilant, Don't Panic About Superbug

A so-called "superbug" has made its way to the U.S. from India. Known as NDM-1, the germ is immune to many common antibiotics. Melissa Block talks with Dr. David Hooper, chief of the infection control unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, where a patient infected with the bug was treated earlier this year.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A so-called superbug has made its way to this country from India. And it's drawing attention once again to the problem of drug-resistant bacteria. This superbug is known as NDM-1. It's been found in three patients treated in the U.S. so far. Some 37 cases have been detected in the U.K.

Dr. David Hooper is chief of the infection-control unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, where one of the U.S. patients was treated. He joins us from Boston. Welcome to the program.

Dr. DAVID HOOPER (Director, Infectious Diseases, Massachusetts General Hospital): Thank you.

BLOCK: And Dr. Hooper, explain a little about what NDM-1 is and how it spreads, please.

Dr. HOOPER: NDM-1 is - refers to a particular type of resistance that is occurring in bacteria that are called gram-negatives, that are often in the gastrointestinal tract. And NDM-1 is resistant to some of the main antibiotics that we rely on as well as a host of other antibiotics - is why it's causing concern.

BLOCK: And it spreads how, exactly?

Dr. HOOPER: It spreads largely in a close contact or often, health-care facility-type situation. It's not like influenza or some other types of infection, where coughing or sneezing or airborne-type transmission occurs. And the cases have been principally problems in hospital or health-care-type settings, both in the U.K. and the U.S.

BLOCK: The three cases of NDM-1 that have been found in this country so far were all in patients who had been in India, including the patient treated there, at Mass General. What can you tell us about that patient without violating any confidentiality - how he got the superbug, and how he's doing now.

Dr. HOOPER: He did have hospitalization in India, but I can tell you that neither our patient nor either of the other two patients identified in the U.S. died from their infection. So they were able to managed appropriately.

BLOCK: What makes these bugs become resistant to antibiotics in the first place?

Dr. HOOPER: They are acquiring genes that encode resistance or that cause resistance mechanisms. And they probably get a foothold because of widespread antibiotic use and poor sanitation conditions in some of the countries where these have first emerged.

One of the problems in India, and other countries in South Asia, is that antibiotics can be obtained easily without prescription, increasing the risk that they may be unnecessarily used in patients who don't need them. These organisms can also be spread in the environment if there are poor sanitation conditions.

BLOCK: Dr. Hooper, what kind of response would you want to see broadly from the health-care system in response to not just this superbug, but other ones that are appearing?

Dr. HOOPER: Well, it's important that we be vigilant, and that we identify in the laboratory these organisms, and that particular ones that are of greatest risk - that those patients be placed in appropriate infection-control-type precautions so we minimize any opportunity for them to spread if they come to us from wherever.

And then what we would all like to see in infectious disease, I think, is a increase in the pipeline of newly developed antibiotics that would help us therapeutically to deal with these infections when they do occur.

BLOCK: Okay, Dr. David Hooper, he's chief of the infection- control unit at Massachusetts General Hospital. We're talking about the superbug known as NDM-1. Dr. Hooper, thanks very much.

Dr. HOOPER: It's my pleasure, thank you.

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