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Losing Their Punch

Losing Their PunchAs doctors continue to over-prescribe antibiotics in China, a Tufts expert says the country's population may soon find that the once-powerful drugs don't work.

Boston [04.26.02] Used by Chinese doctors to treat everything from runny noses to tuberculosis, antibiotics have grown increasingly popular within the country's medical community because they are cheap and effective. But that may soon change, says a Tufts expert, who warns that overuse in China and around the world may be causing the drugs to lose their punch.

"Antibiotics save countless lives by killing bacteria, the cause of infections and deadly illness," reported the Los Angeles Times. "But the more these drugs are used, the greater change of a genetic mutation that allows bacteria to protect themselves. Drug-resistant strains then flourish as antibiotics kill off other bacteria that compete for food."

Costing patients just a few pennies, the drugs have helped dramatically improve healthcare for millions in China -- but not without a cost. Studies now show that the drugs have contributed to a new wave of drug-resistant diseases that are spreading around the country.

The problem is not isolated to China, says Tufts' Dr. Stuart Levy -- a professor of medicine at Tufts and one of the nation's leading experts on antibiotic resistance. But with a population of 1.2 billion, it poses a particular challenge.

"China is among the leading countries that are a concern," he told the Times. "The situation is terrible because these drugs are essentially available over the counter."

According to the newspaper, "More than 70 percent of drug prescriptions nationwide in China are for antibiotics, compared with about 30 percent in the West."

Farmers heavily use antibiotics on their livestock as well -- a practice that has been shown to help breed resistant bacteria -- further adding to China's antibiotic resistance problems.

But few people in the region are aware of the possible dangers of overusing the powerful drugs.

"Experts say Chinese health workers have only rudimentary medical training and often don't know the dangers of overuse of drugs," reported the Times. "Health workers say they are only beginning to be made aware of the problem, and few government policies exist to curtail antibiotic use."

Though more aware of the problem, doctors in the United States are facing similar problems.

In a Wall Street Journal article published on Thursday, Levy warned, "Strains of five bacterial species capable of causing life-threatening illnesses already evade every antibiotic in the clinician's armamentarium."

And the Food and Drug Administration has found that over 70 percent of the infection-causing bacteria in hospitals is resistant to at least one of the drugs most commonly used to treat it, reported the Augusta Chronicle.

Levy -- who heads the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics -- says resistance is becoming increasingly more widespread.

"It's not simply, 'Oh, it's resistant to this. It's resistant to two, three, four, sometimes eight or nine drugs," he told the Chronicle. "While the worst ones are seen in hospitals, there are some pretty nasty ones [in the general population]."

For now, scientists and doctors are hoping that educational campaigns will help curb the problem. But more needs to be done.

"So in quiet conversations, scientists and economists are beginning to think about stronger medicine," reported the Journal.

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