Future

Antibiotics In China, Local Practice Turns Global Health Menace

Massive use of antibiotics in animal farming and for the treatment of common ailments is helping create incurable infections.

Chinese owner of a pig farm sprays disinfector on pigs
Chinese owner of a pig farm sprays disinfector on pigs
Cyrille Pluyette

ZHAOQING — On a pig farm near Zhaoqing, in south-western China, dozens of lifeless pigs float in the murky, stinking waters of a pond surrounded by banana trees and vegetable patches. One of the animals is still struggling, assailed by a school of catfish. Ahead, still visible in the fading daylight, is a row of seven buildings with slanted roofs at the foot of a lush hillside, where more than a thousand sows and their piglets are kept.

What happens inside is a secret as access is restricted. But there are signs to indicate dubious practices. Dead or ailing piglets are thrown into the pond, even though it's illegal to do so. It is quicker and cheaper. A few dozen meters away, a sow lies on a mud track, awaiting the arrival of the insurance firm that must make its assessment.

This is one of hundreds of pig farms set up in recent years in Zhaoqing following a shift away from the provincial capital, Guangzhou (also known as Canton), where such facilities were deemed too polluting. The arrival of the farms has altered the local landscape. Bulldozers are now at work widening a strip of red earth to clear space for a second road.

Ying Guang-Guo, a professor at the Canton Geochemistry Institute tasked with overseeing the province's big cities, has arrived with his team to study this newly polluted zone. But his biggest concern is an invisible danger, namely the large amounts of antibiotics contained in pig excrements flowing into the pond. The farm's young manager, the son of a Communist Party member, is evasive. He initially claims to use antibiotics only when sows are pregnant. But then he admits using authorized products on sick animals.

Our scientist grins behind his glasses as he listens. He is 52 but looks younger. And he doesn't believe a word he hears. In fact, he tells us, the farm probably uses about 5 kilograms of antibiotics a year, a considerable amount, and through procedures that are likely illegal.

The government recently published a list of pharmaceutical products authorized only with prescription, and presumably destined only for sick animals. This includes Colistin, used for people as a last resort. But as I was writing this report, Colistin could be readily purchased on Alibaba, China's leading online store, allowing people to buy them as they please.


Indiscriminate use

Abusing antibiotics in animal farming is common in China. To supply meat to a population of over 1.4 billion, animals are raised, as elsewhere, on an industrial scale, in restricted spaces and with sanitary conditions that weaken their health. In order to prevent illnesses and reduce mortality, farmers stuff them preventively with antibiotics mixed into their food. The antibiotics also hasten animal growth, adding a further incentive. This particularly concerns pig farms, but also numerous duck and fish ponds located alongside the highway linking Canton and Zhaoqing.

The life of these antibiotics does not end here, as waste waters channel them into streams, rivers and lakes. Our pig farm pond, which spills over when it rains abundantly, "contains a lot of it," says our researcher, who collects mud samples from lakes and waterways across the country.

There is no regulation in China, he says, on treating waste-waters from farms. As filtering systems are expensive, many small farmers pour their wastewater directly into rivers. The farm we visited had just installed a purification system in a building near the water, which was being tested. But the rather simple mechanism could not cleanse the water completely of antibiotics. Only 20% of Chinese farms use these simple systems, the Canton Geochemistry Institute found in a paper published last May.

This was the first in-depth study on the presence of antibiotics in China's environment. The results were shocking. It revealed "alarming" consumption levels and a "relatively high" concentration in nature, especially in the three regions with the most people and farms: Canton and the Pearl River delta, the Yangtze delta region, and Beijing and Tianjin in the north.

Deadly resistance

China, which has a fifth of the world's population, consumes half the antibiotics produced worldwide. The country ingested 162,000 tons in 2013, divided about equally between animals (52%) and people (48%). "It's a big educational problem," says Ying Guang-Guo. "The Chinese have very little information on how to use antibiotics." Doctors prescribe them merrily and people can get them without prescription in small clinics (though hospitals are stricter).

This overuse has become a health threat. Bacteria naturally develop resistance to the antibiotics they absorb, but with massive use "in the past 10 years, resistance by some bacteria has risen fast in China and is now above levels seen on average throughout the planet," says Ying Guang-Guo.

The evidence is that the mcr-1 gene, resistant to the most potent antibiotic Colistin and able to go from one bacterium to another, was first spotted in China in 2015 before appearing in the United States. If nothing is done, so-called "super bug" infections could kill up to 10 million people a year by 2050, Britain's Review on Antimicrobial Resistance has found.

Yin Guang-Guo adds that antibiotics can create a vicious circle of pollution affecting both food sources and drinking water. Researchers at the Canton Institute measuring the use and discharge of the main 36 antibiotics in 2013 estimated that about 54,000 tons of antibiotics made it into the country's waters.

Around 80% came from animal, especially pig and poultry farms. Even if its study has yet to find a conclusive link between this and increased germ resistance, "antibiotic pollutants have a negative impact on the ecosystem," says Yin Guang-Guo, adding this would inevitably affect our health.

Another study by the University of Fudan, cited in the Chinese press, suggests that children in Shanghai and in the Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces were frequently exposed to small doses of antibiotics found in their food and environment. Traces have been found in the urine of almost 60% of children. Some of the antibiotics detected have been out of use for decades.

Solving the problem requires greater public awareness, stricter rules for doctors and small clinics and better water treatment. But to deal with so-called super bugs, there also needs to be research into new antibiotics. Ying Guang-Guo says the last ones came out in the 1990s.

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A check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здраво!*

Welcome to Friday, where Joe Biden vows to protect Taiwan from China, Alec Baldwin accidentally kills a cinematographer, and can you guess what day it is TODAY? We also have a report from a researcher in San Diego, USA on the sociological dark side of food trucks.

[*Zdravo - Macedonian]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry may be set to ease, or get much worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before, writes Persian-language media Kayhan-London:

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Kayhan-London

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Biden vows to defend Taiwan: U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would come to Taiwan's defense if it were attacked and had a commitment to defend the island nation that China claims as its own. The White House clarified for the second time in three months that U.S. policy on the subject has not changed, and declined further comment when asked if Biden had misspoken.

• Call on China to respect Uyghurs: A statement from 43 countries denounced China's human rights record at the United Nations over the reported torture and repression of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs, as well as the existence of "re-education camps" in Xinjiang. The declaration calls on Beijing to allow independent observers immediate access. In response, Cuba issued a rival statement shortly afterwards on behalf of 62 other countries claiming "disinformation".

• Alec Baldwin fires prop gun, kills cinematographer: U.S. actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza after discharging a prop gun on the set of his new movie, near Santa Fe. The accident is being investigated.

• Berlusconi acquitted: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was acquitted of judicial corruption charges. The 85-year-old media mogul had been accused of seeking to bribe guests present at his infamous "Bunga Bunga" parties to lie about the evenings as part of an underage prostitution case.

• COVID health workers death toll: A new WHO working report estimates that between 80,000 and 180,000 health and care workers may have died from COVID-19 between January 2020 and May 2021. The same report also noted that fewer than 1 in 10 healthcare workers were fully vaccinated in Africa, compared with 9 in 10 in high-income countries, and less than 5% of Africa's population have been vaccinated.

• Seven killed in Russian gunpowder factory blast: An explosion at the Elastik gunpowder and chemicals plant southeast of Moscow killed at least seven people, while nine are still missing.

• Aye aye, CAP'n: HAPPY CAPS LOCK DAY, FOLKS!

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Dutch daily De Volkskrant pays tribute to "sound master" and renowned classical conductor Bernard Haitink, who died at 92. Born in Amsterdam, Haitink made more than 450 records and led some of the world's top orchestras in the span of his 65-year career.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

The food truck, a sign that the white and wealthy are moving in

In San Diego, California, researcher Pascale Joassart-Marcelli tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun. In The Conversation she writes:

🥡 In 2016 in City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice). Just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors — who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets — now face heightened harassment.

🤑 Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation. Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure. It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies.

🏙️ My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44. When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

€6.65 million

The remains of "Big John," the world's largest triceratops skeleton ever found, were sold at auction for a European record price of 6.65 millions euros in Paris to a private anonymous collector from the U.S. The 200 pieces of the skeleton were unearthed in 2014 in South Dakota and reassembled by specialists in Italy.

👮🎮  IN OTHER NEWS

Police bust Mexican drug gang recruiting boys via online video games

Police in Mexico have intervened to rescue three minors, aged 11 to 14, from recruitment into a drug gang that had enticed them through online gaming.

A top Mexican police agency official Ricardo Mejía Berdeja, said the gang had contacted the youths in the south-central city of Oaxaca, chatting through a free-to-download game called Free Fire, which involves shooting at rivals with virtual firearms.

Calling himself "Rafael," another player of the same age, the suspected gang member offered one of the youths work "checking radio frequencies and watching out for police presence" in Monterrey, northern Mexico, reported national daily El Heraldo de México. The pay was unusually good — 8,000 pesos (almost $400) every two weeks — and the youth called two friends who also wanted to get in.

The three boys were set to take the bait, but an anonymous Mexican intelligence agent following the exchange while also posing as youth playing Free Fire, ultimately led police to a safe house in Santa Lucía del Camino, outside Oaxaca.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back."

— U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to defend Taiwan if it came under attack from China, an assertion that seems to move away from the U.S. stated policy of "strategic ambiguity." His administration is now facing calls to clarify this stance on the island.

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

Paramilitary soldiers are conducting a check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority that have left at least 33 dead since early October. The region, claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, has been the site of a bloody armed rebellion against India since the 1990s — Photo: Adil Abbas/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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