Overuse of antibiotics causes bacteria to develop resistance, and thus poses a serious threat to public health. It has been predicted that antibiotic resistance will likely result in the deaths of 10 million people every year by 2050, surpassing cancer as the leading cause of mortality globally.
While the Chinese government has taken measures to limit the overuse of antibiotics by hospitals in recent years – each Chinese person used to consume 138 grammes of antibiotics per year on average, 10 times the per capita amount used in the US, according to the then Ministry of Heath in 2011 – antibiotics leaked into the environment, which are no less dangerous to people’s health, have largely been overlooked because of a lack of awareness and legal loopholes.
This problem, if not resolved, could have devastating consequences.
According to media reports, antibiotics have been detected in urine samples of residents in the Yangtze River Delta. The overall detection rates were around 40 per cent for pregnant women and nearly 80 per cent for children, both considered vulnerable groups at risk. This happened after antibiotics were found in tap water samples in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, many years before, suggesting that the antibiotic contamination of surface water and soil is becoming more serious.
Despite that, China, as the world’s largest maker and exporter of antibiotics, still does not have national standards on the volume of antibiotics released by manufacturers into surrounding waterways and soil. There has been little if any scrutiny from the environmental watchdogs over the disposal and management of antibiotics because they are not considered a source of pollution. The current standards on the quality of surface water include more than 100 items for monitoring, but antibiotics are not among them.
Apart from manufacturers, livestock farms are another big contributor to antibiotic contamination. To make livestock such as pigs grow quickly and prevent the outbreak of diseases in often cramped conditions, they are regularly given doses of antibiotics. China is now reportedly the largest user of antibiotics in livestock, which poses a factual threat to people’s health.
Antibiotic resistance has been found in all parts of the world and has spread from hospitals and farms to the environment. Yet research on the potential harm caused by increasing antibiotic exposure as well as measures taken to offset the impacts, either on the legal and public education fronts, have lagged behind the increasing challenges we are faced with.
If there is anything we should learn from the novel coronavirus pandemic that is now raging worldwide, it is that we are at risk from deadly pathogens. We must better prepare ourselves for the worst. Unless we wish to later regret our complacency, we should act to further limit our abuse of antibiotics so that they do not lose their ability to be lifesavers.
CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK