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[Op-Ed] Korea: No. 1 in Antibiotics Use

Posted December. 18, 2008 07:26,   


A seven-year-old girl was hospitalized for high fever and thigh pain in Minnesota in 1997. Doctors diagnosed her with bacterial infection and immediately injected antibiotics, but the medicine failed to work. The girl had been healthy, but later developed pneumonia and died five weeks later. Doctors extracted methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), known as superbug, from the girl. In 2006, the number of people infected with MRSA in the United States was 94,000. Among them, 19,000 died, a number bigger than the death toll (17,000) from AIDS that year.

MRSA is treatable with Vancomycin, a potent antibiotic, but some super bacteria are resistant to all antibiotics. One is vancomycin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (VRSA), which is similar to MRSA, but is resistant to Vancomycin. Likewise, bacteria and antibiotics are foes that lock horns to gain the upper hand. When penicillin was first developed, people believed that infectious diseases that had threatened humanity would be conquered. Bacteria, however, has boosted its resistance by detecting loopholes in antibiotics. Ultimately, super bacteria that are immune to all antibiotics have emerged.

Korea is famous for widespread use of antibiotics in treating even light illnesses such as the common cold. The country for years has been the heaviest user of antibiotics among member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. According to the Health, Welfare and Family Affairs Ministry, the ratio of antibiotics prescriptions for colds was 57 percent in this year’s second quarter. The ratio fell from 74 percent in 2002 to 54.1 percent in 2006 due to the separated roles of doctors and pharmacists and the disclosure of hospitals that heavily use antibiotics, only to rebound starting last year. Notably, antibiotics prescriptions for the treatment of colds in children are declining at a painfully slow rate.

The Korea Food and Drug Administration has a booklet warning against antibiotics abuse and misuse in children. Children under age five suffer from colds an average of 10 times per year. Eighty to 90 percent of the illnesses are caused by viral infections, against which antibiotics do not work. They are often confused, but a bacterium, a single cell organism, and a virus only consisting of genes and shell are completely different. Antibiotics are ineffective against viruses. If most children’s colds are caused by viruses, there is little reason to use antibiotics. The rampant abuse of antibiotics could result in the collapse of children’s health, rather than controlling their colds.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)