Illegal sale of antibiotics still common in Hong Kong

By Natasha Fernandes

Pharmacies in Hong Kong are selling antibiotics over the counter without asking for a prescription from customers, an investigation by this health news site  has found, despite the government’s latest effort to combat the drug resistance problem in the city.

Under the Antibiotics Ordinance in Hong Kong, antibiotics can only be sold with a doctor’s prescription and under a  pharmacist’s supervision at a pharmacy. The maximum penalty for illegal sale of antibiotics is a HK$30,000 fine and a maximum 12 months’ imprisonment.

During the investigation, the reporter posed as a customer at two pharmacies with an “Rx” signage which have a granted license of “Authorized Seller of Poisons” to sell antibiotics and attempted to purchase two common antibiotics,  amoxicillin and erythromycin.

At the first pharmacy in Jordan, where the reporter has been frequently visiting for the past few years,  a shopkeeper said he could sell the antibiotics even without a prescription because the reporter was a frequent customer. The shopkeeper said the pharmacist had left but still, he offered to sell the drug after the reporter said she wanted to buy the drug for her friend.

At the second pharmacy in Tsim Sha Tsui, the shopkeeper said he could sell antibiotics to the reporter, again posing as a customer, without prescription but only when a pharmacist is at the store.

“We only sell antibiotics with a pharmacists’ supervision but we don’t need a prescription,” he said, referring to an act which is still illegal.

Purchasing antibiotics without a prescription has been abused for many years and is increasingly leading to the problem of drug resistance.

According to a Hong Kong Economic Journal report, the city has seen an alarming increase in “superbugs” infections due to abuse of antibiotics. “Superbugs” refer to bacteria which are resistant to most common first and second line of antibiotics and treatment of infections of these bacteria are difficult. The Hospital Authority said the number of “superbugs” infections spiked to 340 in 2016 from just 19 in 2011, as stated by a report in Ejinsight.

In another recent article published in Ejinsight,  professor of microbiology at the University of Hong Kong Yuen Kwok-yung said that unnecessary use of antibiotics is a serious concern in Hong Kong’s healthcare sector. He warned that such bad practices have worsened the problem of antimicrobial resistance.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been trying to raise awareness of global antibiotic resistance and will be launching the third annual “World Antibiotic Awareness Week” on the 13-19 of November this year.

The Hong Kong health authorities have been stepping up its effort to combat drug resistance problem. In 2016, the Centre of Health Protection established the multi-sectoral high-level steering committee on antimicrobial resistance, a high level committee formed by government officials and experts, to tackle the threat of antimicrobial resistance on public health.

Image source: Flikr, @Sheep Purple