No time to waste against superbugs
The admission by top University of Hong Kong microbiologist Ho Pak-leung that outbreaks of a drug-resistant superbug in hospitals and the community are 'slightly out of control' is worrying. Resistance to the most powerful available drugs in a growing number of cases means that it will be difficult to bring them under control.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which first surfaced in hospitals and was for a time confined to them, has infected a record 624 people who had not been in hospital last year, according to the Department of Health. To put this into perspective, it is only eight years since Hong Kong had its first MRSA case outside a hospital. The Hospital Authority says the rate of cases that could not be treated with drugs because of resistance has been rising by one percentage point a year, to 43 per cent last year.
The infection has entered a vicious cycle of resistance. Hospital Authority chief infection control officer Dominic Tsang Ngai-chong says the more cases of infection there are, and the more antibiotics that have to be used, the greater the possibility of the drug mutating to become stronger and more resistant. As a result, the authority has resorted to appealing to doctors to carefully balance the use of the most effective drugs, with the aim of reducing usage to the minimum level - leaving no doubt that drug resistance has developed into a serious public health problem. The World Health Organisation says that diseases due to drug resistance will be a leading threat this decade.
Hong Kong has come under notice in the past for overuse of antibiotics. Nonetheless, its success in fighting Sars and bird flu are seen as reasons it can show leadership. Health experts say a higher incidence of MRSA infection could indicate poor hygiene, and overcrowding and a shortage of medical staff in hospitals. Avoidance of sharing personal items and frequent hand-washing can help stop the spread of superbugs. It is time for a major public education effort to increase awareness of the dangers and safeguards.