China's Welcome Progress Against Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

A crackdown on overprescription at Chinese hospitals is helping prevent "superbugs," but hospital dependence on drug profits remain an obstacle.
More
Doctor Zhang Shutian (R) looks at a medical photograph of a patient's stomach in the Gastroenterology and Hepatolgy ward at the Beijing Friendship Hospital. (David Gray/Reuters)

The rise of “superbugs,” lethal bacteria that can’t be killed by most antibiotics, owes particular thanks to China, where antibiotics are handed out like throat lozenges because hospitals depend on overprescribing them to make money. That’s part of why some scientists think deaths from infection could soon hit levels not seen since the early 20th century.

What saves the world from that fate could be this: In 2011, China’s Ministry of Health started cracking down on antibiotics overprescription, applauding hospitals that complied, and publicly shaming those that flouted its new protocols. Now there’s evidence the plan is working. A new study by doctors at Zhejiang University reports that the percentage of hospitalized patients who were prescribed antibiotics fell from 68 percent in 2011 to 58 percent by the end of 2012. For outpatients, that proportion dropped from 25 percent to 15 percent.

Data on hospital drug sales reflect this trend as well. Antibiotics procurement in Tianjin, for example, was 200 million yuan ($32 million) less in 2011 than in 2010, despite upticks in both hospitalizations and outpatients. This chart from IMS research showing how the value of antibiotics (antimicrobials) sold, as a proportion of overall drug sales, has changed:

"Changes in Chinese Policies to Promote the Rational Use of Antibiotics," Xiao et al.

We’re not out of the woods yet, though. The authors of the Zhejiang University study note that most Chinese medical students aren’t taught the relationship between antibiotics use and superbugs. And since the government only provides 20 percent of their funding, hospitals are still dependent on drug sales for profits. Plus, a big cause of antibiotic resistance is the drugs’ over-use not just on people, but on millions of farm animals. And that’s an area over which the health ministry has no say.

Jump to comments

Gwynn Guilford is a reporter and editor for Quartz.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Did I Study Physics?

In this hand-drawn animation, a college graduate explains why she chose her major—and what it taught her about herself.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Video

How Is Social Media Changing Journalism?

How new platforms are transforming radio, TV, print, and digital

Video

The Place Where Silent Movies Sing

How an antique, wind-powered pipe organ brings films to life

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in China

Just In