Milk could be the biggest villain for Indians as the country stares into a bacterial time bomb nestling in its vast dairy sector, most of it unorganised.
Unidentified bacteria that are resistant to any form of antibiotics have been found in the udders of cows in England, Scotland, Ireland and Germany. But there is no way to establish how many cows in the huge, unaccounted and unorganised dairy sector in India are afflicted by this bacteria that can transfer from cows to humans to infect them.
According to researchers from University of Cambridge’s Veterinary School (that first found the mutant strain and published it in Lancet Infectious Diseases journal on June 3) and Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute (that decoded the bacteria’s DNA), infection caused among humans by this bacteria is not fatal but could pose a public health hazard if it spreads. Globally, scientists have not yet found a method to detect these bacteria; nor do they know to what extent the global cattle population is affected by them.
This is disturbing for India. A report ‘Technology Export Potential of Milk and Dairy Sector’ by Technology Export Development Organisation (TEDO), a joint initiative of Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), states that one of the major threats faced by the Indian dairy industry is the poor microbiological quality (presence of bacteria) of milk.
The newly-found bacterial strains have a mutated genetic makeup that help them evade detection by the standard molecular tests that are currently used to identify a range of Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA)—a class of ‘superbug’ antibiotic-resistant bacteria responsible for hospital infections, which this newly found genetic mutant bacterium also belongs to.
Dr VVS Suryanarayana, principal scientist, Molecular Virology Lab, Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI), Bangalore, who is currently engaged in developing tests for detection of mastitis (a bacterial infection occurring in the cows’ udders), told DNA: “If such bacteria enter our cattle stock, it will be disastrous. We need to determine the extent of mastitic strains in cows. We have to develop a test, and it is essential for us to do so.”
In fact, work is going on at Veterinary College, Bangalore, under Karnataka Veterinary, Animal & Fisheries Sciences University, to test the sensitivity of local bacterial samples—that can cause infections in cows’ udders—to antibiotics. But due to lack of a detection kit to identify the new bovine MRSA strain, no one knows whether Indian cows are infected or not.
Parthi Bhatol, chairman, Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation, which markets Amul products across India, said: “I haven’t heard of any such unidentified bacteria that are resistant to any form of antibiotics. If such bacteria are found, science will find some solution to it.”