Superbug fear over resistance to antibiotics
Overprescription means mainland Chinese have more drug-resistant genes in their guts than Europeans, raising risk of serious infections
Stephen Chen and Lo Wei
Widespread overuse of antibiotics could have greatly increased the risk of the spread of superbugs, say experts.
Mainland Chinese people have far more antibiotic-resistant genes in their gut microbes than Europeans, a study revealed. This is blamed on overprescription by doctors and the extensive use of antibiotics by farmers and food producers.
And it could mean the drugs would be unable to fight serious infections, enabling them to spread quickly.
The study, published in the science journal Nature Communications, found mainland Chinese have genes resistant to 70 major types of antibiotics in their gut microbes, compared to 49 in Spain and 45 in Denmark.
While the abuse of antibiotics is a global problem, the study has provided the first concrete evidence that the problem is particularly serious in mainland China.
University of Hong Kong microbiologist Ho Pak-leung said: "The gut is a favourable breeding environment for bacteria. More antibiotic resistant genes in the gut … would increase the chance of superbugs developing there."
Ho noted that the per capita use of antibiotics on the mainland was among the highest in the world, while in Denmark it was one of the lowest.
"It is dangerous that so many people are carrying drug-resistant bacteria in their guts. The bacteria could escape and infect a person and quickly spread to other people. The antibiotics we have will be ineffective in treating these infections," he said.
Zhu Baoli, a researcher with the Institute of Microbiology at the Chinese Academy of Science who led the study, said the most abused antibiotics were tetracycline, penicillin, amoxicillin and erythromycin.
He shared Ho's concerns, adding: "This certainly increases the emergence of superbugs."
Zhu said mainland doctors tended to prescribe many more antibiotics than their European counterparts.
But he said a more serious issue was the unregulated use of veterinary antibiotics at poultry, fish and pig farms.
The drug-resistant bacteria could easily be passed from the animals to humans, he said.
"Heaven knows how many antibiotics the farmers have been feeding to their livestock to reduce sickness and increase production every year," he said.
Zhu said data provided by the European Union authorities showed the use of tetracycline on farms was the main cause of drug-resistant bacteria in their livestock.
But the Chinese government refused to provide data on the use of veterinary antibiotics.
"As soon as they learnt what our research was about, they refused to give us any data. Some officials were worried they might loss their job if this causes any panic," Zhu said.