If penicillin was one of mankind's greatest discoveries, antibiotic-resistant bacteria poses one of its greatest health threats. Germs began developing resistance to the new life-saving class of drugs soon after penicillin was introduced in the 1940s. Science stayed one step ahead by producing new drugs, but could not prevent the emergence of superbugs resistant to all but a tiny handful of last-resort antibiotics. The process was fuelled and then accelerated by over-prescription and abuse of antibiotics.
This is a worldwide issue. But a new study provides concrete evidence that it is a particularly serious problem among China's huge population, where it is exacerbated by unrestricted use of antibiotics by poultry, fish and pig farmers and food producers. This has serious implications for Hong Kong, which imports much of its fresh produce from the mainland.
The study, just published in the science journal Nature Communications, reveals that mainlanders have far more antibiotic-resistant genes in their gut microbes than Europeans, which reflects higher per capita use of antibiotics.
Interpreting the results, University of Hong Kong microbiologist Ho Pak-leung said that because the gut is a favourable breeding environment for bacteria, more antibiotic -resistant genes would increase the chance of superbugs developing there. If one escaped, infected someone and spread to others, available antibiotics would be ineffective, he said.
Zhu Baoli, a researcher with the Institute of Microbiology at the Chinese Academy of Science, who led the study, said that while mainland doctors tended to prescribe many more antibiotics than their European counterparts, the more serious issue was the use of veterinary antibiotics to increase food production. The drug-resistant bacteria could easily be passed from animals to humans.
The central government declined to provide researchers with data on the use of veterinary antibiotics. If this was an attempt to avoid arousing public concern, it was misguided. The government must take the lead in regulating the use of antibiotics to boost production, press on with health reforms that remove the financial incentive for doctors to overprescribe, and launch a programme to educate people about the danger of overuse and abuse of antibiotics. The latter also goes for Hong Kong, which has come under notice for overuse of antibiotics, and has a growing problem with superbug infections both in hospitals and in the general community.