CHINA'S reckless use of antibiotics in its health system and agricultural production is fuelling an explosion of drug-resistant superbugs that threaten global health.

Scientists have warned that Chinese doctors routinely prescribe multiple doses of antibiotics for sore throats, while farmers' excessive dependence on the drugs has tainted the food chain.

Studies in China show a rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA. There are fears new strains of antibiotic-resistant organisms could spread quickly through international air travel and food sourcing.

''We have a lot of data from Chinese hospitals and it shows a very frightening picture of high-level antibiotic resistance,'' said Dr Andreas Heddini, of the Swedish Institute for Infectious Disease Control.

''There is a real risk that globally we will return to a pre-antibiotic era of medicine [and] a situation where a number of medical treatment options would no longer be there.''

Resistance rates of MRSA in Chinese hospitals had more than doubled from 30 per cent to 70 per cent, warned Xiao Yonghong, of the Institute of Clinical Pharmacology at Beijing University. Last year, researchers found a new strain of MRSA in Chinese pigs imported to Hong Kong and called for urgent studies into its potential to infect humans after the new strain was confirmed in Guangzhou, where many of the pigs had been farmed.

A Beijing health expert with access to unpublished surveys said they showed the situation in China was actually worse than earlier studies had indicated.

''The Chinese ministry of health has all the data but seems unable or unwilling to believe it,'' the expert said. ''The situation has global implications and is highly disturbing.''

The ministry did not respond to requests for an interview or information. New prescription guidelines to restrict antibiotic use were issued by the ministry in 2004.

''The guidelines are not being followed effectively,'' Professor Xiao said. ''Over just the last five years, for example, our studies show the rate of antibiotic-resistant E. coli has quadrupled from 10 per cent to 40 per cent.''

Public health experts say the overuse of antibiotics is primarily caused by an underfunded health system where hospitals derive up to half of their operating income from selling drugs.

''In Chinese hospitals, our data shows that 60 per cent of inpatients are being prescribed antibiotics compared with the World Health Organisation guideline of 30 per cent,'' said Professor Xiao, who is the head of China's National Antibiotic Resistance Investigation Network.

China's state food and drug administration bans the sale of antibiotics without a prescription but the majority of chemists sell antibiotics after a cursory consultation with a ''patient'' who complains of a sore throat.