India should improve sanitation to attract tourists

Last Updated: May 03, 2011, 15:59 PM IST

New York: Reports of a superbug in New Delhi`s water supply, which the government has denied, are not likely to have much effect on India`s booming health tourism, but the country needs to attend to poor sanitation standards if it wants to attract tourists to its low-priced medical facilities, say Indian-origin health experts here.

"India may have the finest hospitals and the best of medical facilities to attract the medical tourist, yet we cannot ignore that India needs to clean up and pay attention to sanitation," Pramod Wasudev, an Indian American surgeon, told reporters.

He was referring to reports of the superbug metallo-beta-lactamase (NDM) 1 gene, immune to almost all known antibiotics, reportedly found in New Delhi`s water supply and its impact on the medical tourists to India. India has maintained that the capital`s drinking water is safe and questioned the credibility of the Lancet study.

Wasudev, a 73-year-old practising surgeon of Nashville, said increasing awareness among US travellers about the poor infrastructure, poor sanitation, long list of vaccines, medications and restrictive guidelines and warnings about food items and fluids to avoid while in India discourage potential medical tourists.

"It is not about the presence of a drug resistant superbug or about assertions or denials by scientists and authorities; nor is it about conspiracies by drug companies. The bottom line is that to change the Indian approach to healthcare attention has to be paid to preventive care and changes in lifestyle habits," urged Wasudev, champion of health reforms with 45 years of experience behind him, working in three continents, Asia, Europe and America.

Market research reports an estimated 150,000 people travel to India for low-priced healthcare procedures every year. India`s medical tourism sector is expected to experience an annual growth rate of 30 percent, making it a Rs.9,500 crore ($2.1 billion) industry by 2015.

Jayesh Patel, specialist in Infectious Diseases, believes the effect of the superbug report will not have much impact on medical tourism from the US. Patel told IANS: "I believe the effect will be small in the near term on medical tourism from America to India. There are other kinds of superbugs in America and the NDM-1 is not yet a big problem among the vast majority of medical tourists returning to America.

"If the NDM-1 gene spreads throughout India into hospitals and leads to high levels of morbidity and mortality, it will reflect on the complications in medical tourists also and then it could affect the medical tourism industry."

But he added on a cautionary note: "However the last thing a patient wants is to get sick in a foreign country away from home; so if we start seeing a lot of serious infections leading to bad outcomes among medical tourists, this could impact the industry."

Asked if he agreed with the medical fraternity in India that the superbug theory was a conspiracy by the drug companies against developing nations and the booming medical tourism in India, he said: "I find this type of thinking bogus and reflective of people`s attitude to blame others for their problems. This blame game will slow down the proper response needed by the governmental healthcare ministry and the medical fraternity to address this problem that could have the potential of being even bigger than AIDS or malaria."

Devlina Chakravarty, Medical Director, Artemis Health Institute located in the NCR region of Delhi, said although the superbug report has not affected medical tourism in any way the issues of water and sanitation cannot be compromised.

She asserted that if the bug was active in Indian hospitals it would have affected the domestic patients too "and so far no such cases are reported or registered".

Elaborating on the cheaper medical facilities in India, the radiologist told IANS: "The cost of surgery or treatment in India for most of the procedures is 75-80 percent cheaper as compared to some of the European countries and the US. Medical tourists come to India from various countries across the world, including the UK, the US, Canada, the Middle East and Africa, and the SAARC countries have maximum representation."

According to a Deloitte 2009 survey, 750,000 Americans travelled abroad and this number will increase to 1.3 million in 2011. India should be able to encash on this opportunity and the superbug report is considered `a wake-up call` for health authorities in India.