Superbug prompts Alberta Health travel warning

Alberta doctors are warning travellers about going outside Canada for medical treatment after an Albertan was infected with a new form of antibiotic-resistant bacteria while in an Indian hospital.
British scientists have identified NDM-1, an enzyme that can turn bacteria into superbugs resistant to antibiotics, in 180 patients in the U.K., India and Pakistan. ((CBC))

Alberta doctors are warning travellers about going outside Canada for medical treatment after an Albertan was infected with a new form of antibiotic-resistant bacteria while in an Indian hospital.

Provincial health officials confirmed Thursday that it became aware this spring of one reported case of an infection caused by a new type of "superbug" that resists antibiotic treatment.

Dr. Gerry Predy, the province's medical officer of health, would say only that the individual in that case had been in a hospital in India before being infected and was discharged after being treated in Canada. He would not say what kind of treatment the individual had originally sought in India.

Hospitals are one of the most common places where people acquire infections, and many antibiotic-resistant superbugs thrive in hospital environments.

Dr. Mark Joffe, Alberta Health Services' senior medical director, said anyone considering travel for medical treatment anywhere in the world should weigh the risks. 

"I would advise individuals to look at their options carefully and to understand that there are consequences to decisions," Joffe said at a news conference. "There are potential complications to any procedures, anywhere they are done."

The journal Lancet Infectious Diseases published a study earlier this week describing a new enzyme called New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase, or NDM-1, which makes bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

E. coli bacteria can make the enzyme and pass it on to other types of bacteria via DNA structures called plasmids.

Expected to spread

The antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria are already widespread in India and have been identified in 180 people in India, Pakistan and the U.K. They have also been detected in Australia, the United States, the Netherlands and Sweden.

Only one other infection has been reported in Canada — involving a woman who was successfully treated with a combination of antibiotics in B.C., again after being in India.

The superbugs are expected to spread worldwide, since many Americans and Europeans travel to India and Pakistan for elective procedures such as cosmetic surgery, the researchers said.

India has also become a destination for people seeking so-called liberation treatment for multiple sclerosis. The treatment is based on a theory — first put forward by Italian doctor Paolo Zamboni — that blocked veins in the neck or spinal cord are to blame for MS. However, two recent studies have cast doubt on its effectiveness.

Joffe wouldn't address the liberation treatment and travel to India specifically but did repeat his warning when asked about the risks.

"Again, I would emphasize that travelling anywhere for medical procedures, cosmetic procedures, necessary medical procedures or anything, comes with a potential risk," he said.

The Indian Health Ministry came out swinging against the Lancet study Thursday, according to published reports in that country's media. The Times of India quoted a Health Ministry statement as saying the report was tainted by funding from the European Union and drug companies.