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Yamuna Part 4: The Rise of NDM-1

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 25, 2011

Among believers on the banks of the Yamuna now, the reality is that most fit into three broad categories, Haberman says: Some think that because the river is a goddess, she can never be polluted, no matter how physically defiled. Others believe that the pollution can harm creatures that depend on the river for survival, but not the goddess herself. And a third group believes the goddess herself is dying and in need of their help.

The creatures that depend on the river are clearly in trouble. The big river turtles that carry the goddess Yamuna in religious imagery have now largely vanished, and no one really knows the status of bird species that depend on the river. Aquatic life has also suffered and, according to India Today, 500 river villages that were largely based on fishing in the 1970s must now earn their livelihood by other means.

The effects of the river’s pollution on human health, though also inadequately studied, include a sharp spike in cases of hepatitis A and typhoid fever, according to recent work in New Delhi. Reliance on polluted river water is also a major factor in India’s high infant mortality rate—more than 50 deaths per 1,000 births, compared to 6.8 in the United States.

Pollution of the Yamuna could also have public health consequences worldwide. In April an article in the British medical journal The Lancet warned that bacteria in New Delhi drinking water carry a gene, NDM-1 (New Delhi metallobetalactamase), for an enzyme that conveys resistance to almost all known antibiotics. Resistant bacteria turned up “in public water used for drinking, washing and food preparation and also in pools and rivulets in heavily populated areas where children play,” according to lead author Tim Walsh of Cardiff University.

An estimated 500,000 people in New Delhi now carry resistant bacteria, which have also appeared in Europe, North America and other parts of Asia. Medical authorities worry that the rapid spread of this form of resistance could imperil all kinds of routine medical procedures that depend on the ability to treat infections.

“If resistance destroys that ability,” British health official David Livermore told The Wall Street Journal, “then the whole edifice of modern medicine crumbles.”

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