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How China Tackled the Risky Overprescription of Antibiotics

Beijing has lately enjoyed an uncharacteristic stretch of clear blue skies, a respite from the smog, but I’ve still been feeling under the weather. So, after a few weeks of coughing and persistent sniffles, I finally paid a visit to the Beijing SOS International Health Clinic today. The Dutch doctor took my temperature, listened to my breathing through a stethoscope (“You have mucus in your lungs”), examined my tonsils, and asked several questions about how long symptoms had persisted before prescribing a weeklong course of antibiotics. Like many internationally trained doctors, he was duly cautious about writing a prescription too quickly.

In recent years, international medical researchers have spotlighted the dangers of overprescribing antibiotics, which can give rise to drug-resistant bacteria, or “superbugs,” a significant public health threat. Last month the Journal of the American Medical Association published an analysis by Harvard researchers of two extensive sets of U.S. national medical records from 1997 to 2010. While bacterial infections cause only 10 percent of cases of acute bronchitis, the researchers found American doctors prescribed antibiotics roughly 70 percent of the time. For the 90 percent of acute bronchitis cases caused by viral infections, antibiotics have no impact, at best.