In his book River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India’s Future, Victor Mallet traces the journey of the river from source to mouth. Mallet, the former South Asia bureau chief for the Financial Times, writes in the book that “Indians are killing the Ganges with pollution, and that the polluted Ganges, in turn, is killing Indians.” The book includes chapters on the history of the Ganga, the distressing fate of the river in Varanasi, the extent of the toxicity of its waters, as well as its significance in the country’s water crisis. In the following extract from the book, Mallet describes the Ganga as a “Superbug river”—host to bacterial genes that expose the water’s users to infectious diseases that are resistant to modern antibiotics. The journalist discusses the role the Ganga and its tributary Yamuna play in the spread of blaNDM-1—a bacterial gene that codes for a protein called NDM-1, or New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase, and whose presence can make the carrier highly resistant to antibiotics. Mallet writes that the spread of the gene is a political issue that is closely connected to the Ganga’s state, its sacred position among Hindus, and to India’s sanitation problem.
Vipin Vashishtha, a paediatrician in Bijnor, a town in Uttar Pradesh on the Ganges, described his horror when babies starting dying in his hospital in 2009 because bacterial acquisition of blaNDM-1 had made infections resistant to antibiotics. “What I found out was that there is a deadly epidemic going on. And very few of us have any clue ... The bacteria in our water, sewage, soil, even the bacteria within us—they are all immune to nearly all antibiotics.”
But what might a patient’s death from a superbug infection in a hospital in New York or London have to do with India, let alone the Ganges—particularly if the victim has never travelled to south Asia? The answer is that the NDM genes that make bacteria highly drug-resistant are being spread across the country in humans and other animals, and through sewers, streams, and rivers, and are ultimately transported onward in people’s guts to every part of the world.