A Germ by Any Other Name: The Case Against the New Delhi Superbug

A Germ by Any Other Name: The Case Against the New Delhi Superbug

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A couple of years ago, when there was a snafu with MSN’s e-mail service, Microsoft decided not to use the word “bug” when speaking to its customers. The software giant would instead use the word “issue” when a product was defective.

Today, Memphis-based infectious disease specialist Dr. Manoj K. Jain fairly bristles when he hears the name "New Delhi Superbug" or NDM-1, an enzyme whose DNA latches onto bacteria, causing them to become resistant to antibiotics. The enzyme is said to pose a serious health problem.

“Naming it New Delhi Superbug stigmatizes an entire country,” protested Jain, who is spearheading a campaign with two of his compatriots to change the name.

Their “Let’s Change the Name” petition drive has so far garnered 1,300 signatures. The petition explains that the Superbug is not only a problem in India, but in such places as Bosnia, Pakistan and the United Kingdom.

Granted, “there’s a grand tradition of naming enzymes after the name of the city where it is believed to have originated,” Jain acknowledged. (Think Lyme disease, as in Lyme, Connecticut, or Norwalk virus, as in Norwalk, Ohio.) “But there’s no evidence that the Superbug originated in India.”

But some British researchers think that it did. Last August, the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet published a cover story warning people not to go to India for medical or surgical reasons because of New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase 1. The warning came after a Swede, who had gone to the Indian capital as a medical tourist, fell ill and had to be admitted to a hospital there.

Indian government officials were not amused. They called The Lancet article “malicious propaganda” designed to slow down booming medical tourism to India.

Jain’s patriotism was stirred. After poring over the spate of articles generated by The Lancet piece, including one in the Washington Post— to which he contributes health columns— the journalist in him said, “‘Wow—this issue is not about the science behind the Superbug, but something is happening behind the scenes.’”

Shortly afterwards, he left for India on a long planned vacation and joined forces with two researchers in India who felt the same about the name of the Superbug. They requested an alternate name from the scientist who first identified it. Show us the scientific evidence, they said, that proves that the enzyme originated in New Delhi.

What they got instead was a “‘why don’t you get over it?’” sort of response, Jain said.

“Those researchers didn’t have a cultural sensitivity to the issue,” asserted Jain, who recently returned to the United States.

But earlier this week, the trio got their first break. Lancet editor Richard Horton apologized, saying that publishing that article was “an error of judgment.”

“We didn’t think of its implications, for which I sincerely apologize,” a BBC news report quoted him as saying.

Even so, Jain said he doesn’t want to let up on his Change the Name campaign. Enzymes, good or bad, “have to be named for their functions, not after cities,” he said.