AMRAVATI, India — A deadly epidemic that could have global implications is quietly sweeping India, and among its many victims are tens of thousands of newborns dying because once-miraculous cures no longer work.
These infants are born with bacterial infections that are resistant to most known antibiotics, and more than 58,000 died last year as a result, a recent study found. While that is still a fraction of the nearly 800,000 newborns who die annually in India, Indian pediatricians say that the rising toll of resistant infections could soon swamp efforts to improve India’s abysmal infant death rate. Nearly a third of the world’s newborn deaths occur in India.
“Reducing newborn deaths in India is one of the most important public health priorities in the world, and this will require treating an increasing number of neonates who have sepsis and pneumonia,” said Dr. Vinod Paul, chief of pediatrics at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and the leader of the study. “But if resistant infections keep growing, that progress could slow, stop or even reverse itself. And that would be a disaster for not only India but the entire world.”
In visits to neonatal intensive care wards in five Indian states, doctors reported being overwhelmed by such cases.
“Five years ago, we almost never saw these kinds of infections,” said Dr. Neelam Kler, chairwoman of the department of neonatology at New Delhi’s Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, one of India’s most prestigious private hospitals. “Now, close to 100 percent of the babies referred to us have multidrug resistant infections. It’s scary.”
These babies are part of a disquieting outbreak. A growing chorus of researchers say the evidence is now overwhelming that a significant share of the bacteria present in India — in its water, sewage, animals, soil and even its mothers — are immune to nearly all antibiotics.
Newborns are particularly vulnerable because their immune systems are fragile, leaving little time for doctors to find a drug that works. But everyone is at risk. Uppalapu Shrinivas, one of India’s most famous musicians, died Sept. 19 at age 45 because of an infection that doctors could not cure.
While far from alone in creating antibiotic resistance, India’s resistant infections have already begun to migrate elsewhere.