AOL News Surge Desk
(Aug. 11) -- A new, drug-resistant superbug has spread from India to the U.K., and health experts are warning that it could become a worldwide
An enzyme called New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase, or NDM-1, is the culprit in question. NDM-1 is found inside bacteria, like E. coli, and makes them extremely virulent and resistant to most antibiotics.
But how is the bacteria transmitted, and are Americans at risk? Surge Desk checks it out.
1. Where did NDM-1 originate, and why is it spreading now?
The superbug is already widespread in India and Pakistan. But a research team, writing in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases, reports that 37 cases have now been detected in the U.K.
Bacteria are always evolving to develop resistance to drugs -- that's why health experts have recently been emphatic about the overuse of antibiotic medication.
NDM-1 is yet another example, with the added twist that it spread and developed in India -- where fewer drugs are available to adequately treat it in the first place -- and where antibiotics are frequently sold over the counter.
"There is little drug control in India and an irrational use of antibiotics," Dr. Arti Vashisth, a Delhi-based physician, told the BBC.
2. How is NDM-1 transmitted from person-to-person?
The enzyme is found in a myriad of bacterial strains and could spread to more. Those bacteria are then transmitted the old-fashioned way: through food preparation, bodily contact and especially hospital procedures.
In fact, 14 of the infected U.K. patients had traveled to India or Pakistan for medical care, mostly plastic surgery. That kind of "medical tourism" could lead NDM-1 to make quick headway toward dangerous world domination.
"Because of medical tourism and international travel in general, resistance to these types of bacteria has the potential to spread around the world very, very quickly," Dr. Timothy Walsh, the study's lead author, told ABC News. "And there is nothing in the (drug development) pipeline to tackle it."
3. Are Americans at risk of contracting NDM-1?
Yes -- whether you've got a hankering for elective cosmetic surgery in India or not. Similar bugs have already been detected in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the Netherlands.
Obviously, hospitalization, medical procedures and a weakened immune system increase one's vulnerability.
4. How can I protect myself from NDM-1?
Have fewer surgical procedures, if you can, advises Dr. Peter Collingnon, an infectious diseases specialist at the Australian National University.
But there's only so much you can do. Much of the work depends on public health agencies, doctors, food production facilities and hospitals.
"You transmit the bugs by poor hand hygiene, for instance, or poor infectious control in hospitals," he told ABC Australia. "You've got to actually make sure you've [got access] to a safe water supply, a safe food supply, not use these important antibiotics needlessly in food animals."
5. When can we expect a treatment for NDM-1?
The Lancet team warns that there's no emerging class of drugs that'll effectively tackle the superbug.
And so far, major pharmaceutical companies aren't offering a straight answer. Most of them have steered clear of investing in new antibiotic products because of the relatively small payoff.
But thanks to NDM-1 and other highly virulent bugs, some seem to be changing their tune.
Indeed, there's now "great value" in antibiotic pharmaceuticals, Anders Ekblom, head of development at AstraZeneca, told ABC News.
"We've long recognized the growing need for new antibiotics, he said. "Bacteria are continually developing resistance to our arsenal of antibiotics, and NDM-1 is just the latest example."