Chinese government must tackle the overuse of antibiotics

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 June, 2015, 2:23am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 June, 2015, 2:23am

Antibiotics remain one of the greatest inventions of the last century. Seventy or 80 years ago, even minor injuries or common infections could lead to dangerous complications. Nowadays, however, it is not good for our health that you can bathe in a soup of antibiotics in the waters of the Pearl River. This is evidence of overuse of antibiotics in humans and animals, according to a study under the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Overuse allows bacteria to develop resistance to drugs and can make infections difficult to treat.

Researchers found that due to population and farming density, the Pearl River has one of the highest concentrations of antibiotics among mainland waterways. They enter the environment through excrement and urine after various waste-water treatments. The implications for public health of overuse and drug resistance cannot be taken lightly or dismissed as alarmist. The World Health Organisation has warned that a time when they could no longer be relied upon to save lives is a real possibility.

The mainland is the world's largest manufacturer and consumer of antibiotics. Though they are designed for prescription by doctors - who tend to overprescribe on demand - anyone can buy them over the counter from local pharmacies. And there is no monitoring of their use in farm animals, poultry and fish destined for human consumption - including in Hong Kong - to prevent diseases and boost production. Researcher Ying Guangguo, of the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, said the government should step up regulatory control over the use of the medicines.

Antibiotic resistance is already a global health issue, as shown by a WHO study of data from more than 100 countries including China. Bringing about rapid change in self-medication habits and livestock farming practices among such a huge population may be expecting a lot of the authorities. But antibiotic resistance ultimately poses an even greater challenge to the public health system. Overuse that shortens the effective life and economic return of antibiotics is also not positive for investment in research and development of new ones.

The government must adopt a two-pronged approach of education and regulation to control the use of antibiotics to boost food production, and launch a programme to educate people about the dangers of overuse and abuse of pharmaceutical drugs.