China’s farms are joining its hospitals in churning out antibiotics-resistant superbugs

Snuggly, and antibiotic resistant.
Snuggly, and antibiotic resistant.
Image: AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko
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China’s antibiotics addiction isn’t just afflicting humans; it’s plaguing animals, too.

The average Chinese person consumes 10 times more antibiotics than the average American, and a 2012 study found that 98% of patients suffering from the common cold in a children’s hospital in Beijing were prescribed antibiotics. That’s due largely to “significant financial incentives” for doctors (read: kickbacks and other perks for selling drugs), according to a Journal of Health Economics study (pdf).

But as Mother Jones flagged today, only half of the 358,800 tonnes (396,000 tons) of antibiotics China consumed in 2012 were consumed by people; the rest was pumped into animals.

This is a technique the country likely picked up from Western industrial farmers, as MJ explains. Maximizing meat production requires cramming animals into cramped, germ-ridden living conditions. Antibiotics are needed to keep them healthy enough to end up in somebody’s hot dog bun.

But the pupil has become the master; steady industrialization of its farms coupled with weak regulation mean that China now uses four times more antibiotics on animals than does the US.

Though the effects aren’t well studied, preliminary research is sufficiently scary. A study published earlier this year compared concentrations of various standalone antibiotic-resistant genes (ARGs) in manure at large-scale pig farms in Beijing, Putian and Jiaxing (the latter is where the country’s famed floating dead pigs came from) with antibiotic-free manure. Overall, the pig farm manure had single ARG concentrations of 192 to 28,000 times that of the control. Counting the ARGs together, the Beijing farm had a concentration that was 121,000 times higher than the control.

Much of the 280 million tonnes of pig manure produced in China each year is used as compost and fertilizer, which transfers bacteria to produce that humans ingest. Manure-borne bacteria with ARGs also seep into groundwater that humans consume as drinking water, and find their way into inhaled dust particles. And while bacteria with ARGs don’t necessarily turn bacteria into superbugs, that’s certainly one way they can develop.

On top of that, when people eat antibiotics-treated pigs, or chicken, the meat carries a low dose of antibiotics, which can boost the resistance of bacteria they are exposed to.

Heavy use of antibiotics in China’s healthcare system has already taken its toll, despite recent efforts to address the problem. For instance, together with India, China accounts for half the cases of tuberculosis that several types of antibiotics can’t touch (medical professionals call this “multi-drug resistant,” or MDR, TB for short).

Image for article titled China’s farms are joining its hospitals in churning out antibiotics-resistant superbugs

The effects of China’s antibiotics craze have global implications. Here’s a chart based on European Union patient survival rates of infections from antibiotic-resistant strains, compared with survival rates of patients with infections that remain sensitive to drugs:

Image: reactgroup.org

Given how quickly and easily bacteria spread across continents, China’s antibiotics binge no doubt exacerbates bacterial resistance in the EU, and around the world.