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The Chinese government's antibiotics crackdown

It has become harder for the Chinese to self-medicate.

A woman prepares traditional Chinese medicines at a hospital in Shanghai, July 3, 2009. (Nir Elias/Reuters)

SHANGHAI, China — The outpatient waiting room at Shanghai’s Putuo District Hospital on a weekday evening resembles a bubbling cauldron. Faces are flushed with fever, and bodies are sweating through thick layers. Many of the hundred or so patients are accompanied by a family member running back and forth to the buzzing nurses’ station to check on their spot in line.

Inside the office, two young doctors sit at wooden desks, examining patients at a brisk pace. Obviously outnumbered, they take about two minutes with each case before ordering tests or dashing off prescriptions. Most patients are here because of a fever, and when they get up to the doctor’s desk, what they want — and expect — is a dose of antibiotics to speed recovery.

“I had a fever for three days, and no other cold symptoms. They did all sorts of tests on me — a chest X-ray, cardiogram, two blood tests — for fear that it was H1N1. My nose wasn’t even running. And after all those tests, the doctor sent me home to rest with nothing,” a corporate driver named Zhang said. “I went back and begged him for an antibiotic IV.”

But Zhang found that his doctor had become unusually unwilling to dispense from the arsenal of “cure-all” meds that even elderly patients can request by name. China has high rates of antibiotic resistance and a health care system that provides strong financial incentives for over-prescribing antibiotics. Now the central government is taking measures to change that.

Stockpiling antibiotics at home is a common practice among Chinese households. Those who are sick will often go to the hospital and pressure doctors to dole out prescriptions, then take a couple and hold the rest in reserve until they get worse or for the next time they’re sick.

According to the Chinese Pharmaceutical Association, last year 22 hospitals in China’s major cities prescribed more than RMB53 billion ($7.75 billion) worth of cephalosporin — one of the most popular groups of antibiotics prescribed in China — a record. Coughs and diarrhea are almost universally treated with antibiotics, according to a study published in Health Policy in April 2009.

During the height of the SARS epidemic in 2003, many Chinese rushed into pharmacies to stock up on powerful antibiotics, which were available over the counter. Some even took them daily as a preventative measure against getting ill.

“It was a wake-up call,” said Dr. Ding Zhao, who treated SARS patients in Shenyang, China, and is now practicing traditional Chinese medicine in Shanghai. “Patients were eating all kinds of antibiotics before coming to the hospital, and then they were prescribed even more pills.”

According to Art Reingold, a professor and head of the epidemiology division at University of California, Berkeley: "Before it was discovered that SARS was a coronavirus, people were treating it wtih anything they could come up with."

Though there's no evidence that antibiotics abuse contributed to the development of SARS, the World Health Organization has warned that efforts to control infectious diseases have been jeopardized by widespread drug resistance, a consequence of poor medical treatment and the misuse of antibiotics.