Prescription Required to Purchase Antibiotics in China: An Update

In a move to address antibiotic abuse in China, the Ministry of Health and the State Food and Drug Administration (SDFA) issued a new regulation, effective July 1, 2004, limiting the purchase of antibiotics to patients who have received a doctor’s prescription. Previously, no prescription was needed to purchase antibiotics in China. Moreover, there was no limit on the quantity of antibiotics that could be purchased by an individual. The SFDA’s new regulation intends to reduce the misuse of antibiotics and to help educate the public about the consequences of excessive antibiotic use.

Major drugstores in China carry up to 200 different types of antibiotics, and prior to July 1, 2004, these antibiotics were readily accessible to all people. Additionally, due to the high costs of healthcare, many citizens relied on self-diagnosis for years and tended to purchase antibiotics for all minor illnesses, including the common cold. Thus, antibiotic abuse is purportedly responsible for half of the country’s cases of deafness and almost 2.5 million people are hospitalized every year for adverse reactions to antibiotics. The SFDA hopes the new regulation will curb antibiotic abuse in China by reducing the accessibility of antibiotics.

Nevertheless, there are some concerns about the new regulation. Some people believe that drugstores may ally with hospitals or hire hospital doctors to write prescriptions for antibiotics, helping to sustain drugstores’ high profits from antibiotic sales. Fake prescriptions could also become an issue, as people try to buy antibiotics without seeing a doctor. Hospitals have prepared for the new regulation by designating specific codes for antibiotics, which will be inscribed on prescription pads and electronic prescriptions at major hospitals, allowing doctors and pharmacists to verify the authenticity of prescriptions.

Conversely, the restrictions on antibiotic use may pave the way for makers of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). TCM used to treat the common cold, inflammation and allergies is not labeled as an antibiotic and may be a cheaper alternative to Western antibiotics. A TCM factory has already been established in Guangzhou to conduct further research on “TCM antibiotics.”