Antibiotic Crackdown in Korea

South Korea is home to some of the world's toughest bugs. The country attained that dubious distinction in part by making antibiotic drugs easily available. Now it's finally cracking down by requiring doctors' prescriptions.

For decades Korea allowed pharmacists to sell drugs freely as a way to help people who were too poor to see doctors. Ironically, the practice became a lucrative sideline for doctors, who supplemented their incomes by doubling as pharmacists.

The long-term result of this policy, combined with the spread of resistant clones from elsewhere, has been a sky-high rate of resistance to antibiotics as bacteria enthusiastically evolve in response to repeated challenges. According to a 1997 study by Song Jae Hoon, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Samsung Medical Center in Seoul, more than 80% of Pneumococci were penicillin-resistant. The rates of resistance to 10 other antibiotics also exceeded those in nine other Asian countries surveyed.

The government has finally responded to the problem by requiring patients to get doctors' prescriptions for most drugs. The new law took effect on 1 July, triggering an unprecedented 6-day strike by physicians. But some old antibiotics are still exempt from the new law--the Korean medical association says that's because the majority of government policy-makers and advisers are pharmacists.