infectious diseases

How do you tell the family members of a critically ill patient that their loved one is going to die because there are no antibiotics left to treat the patient’s infection?  In the 21st century, doctors are not supposed to have to say things like this to patients or their families.

Ever since the discovery of penicillin in 1940, patients have expected a pill or an intravenous injection to cure their infections. But our hubris as a society with respect to antibiotics has been exposed by the rise of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued a new study, entitled “Antibiotic resistance threats in the United States, 2013,” reporting that at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are highly resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections. These estimates are highly conservative.  Many more people die from other conditions that were complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection.

Meantime, we have ever-decreasing new weapons to wage the war against such infections because the availability of new antibiotics is down by more than 90% since 1983.

Interventions are needed to encourage investment in new antibiotics, to prevent the infections in the first place, to slow the spread of resistance and to discover new ways to attack microbes without driving resistance.

A major reason for the “market failure” of antibiotics is that they are taken for short periods of time, so they have a lower return on investment than drugs that are taken for years (such as cholesterol-lowering drugs).  The Food and Drug Administration can help reverse the market failure by adopting new regulatory approaches to encourage development of critically needed new antibiotics.

Continue reading “New Interventions Needed to Halt the Growth of “Superbugs””

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At my infectious-diseases clinic in Southeast Washington, I work with some of the city’s most indigent patients. Some don’t have jobs, a home, a car or enough to eat. But recently, I saw a patient whose problem made these issues seem trivial.

Dealing with fatigue, a cough and a fever for several months, this woman in her 40s had been evaluated by four internists. They had tested her for a variety of conditions but not HIV. Each had recommended rest, two prescribed antibiotics, and one suggested an over-the-counter cough medicine. Experiencing no physical relief from these suggestions, the woman had decided to “lay down and die.”

However, after her longtime partner insisted she get medical help, she agreed to go to a hospital emergency room. After a rapid test, which she initially refused because she said she was not at risk for HIV, she learned that she was HIV-positive.

After that ER visit, she brought her partner, whom she credits with saving her life, to my clinic to be tested; she was concerned that she had transmitted the virus to him. He tested positive. About a week later, when he accompanied her to an appointment with me, I asked if he had been seen by a doctor to discuss treatment. He said no and indicated that he wanted to establish care in the clinic.

When I asked if he had ever been on HIV drugs, he gazed at the medication chart and pointed out his previous regimen, a cocktail that contained indinavir. Because I and many other doctors stopped prescribing this medication a decade ago, I knew he had been keeping his condition from her for years. He stopped talking and avoided my gaze. It was clear he knew that I had learned his secret. I had many questions for him; but this visit was for her.

It was not the right moment to dredge up this history and ask how he could keep his diagnosis hidden while watching his partner struggle with her health. I chose not to ask about his dishonesty, their relationship and whether they had used condoms to protect her from getting HIV. At this point, I needed to help her understand that, even though she felt weak and sick, the medications would soon make her feel better. And that, with the right treatment, she could still live a long life.

While talking with my patient about her treatment, my mind kept wandering back to her partner’s secret. Was it my role to admonish him in front of her, or would that make things worse? What would they say to each other when they got home? I wanted to discuss these questions, but did I have a right to insert my judgment into this situation? At a private visit with me two weeks later, she let me know that this was the moment she realized he’d been keeping his diagnosis from her for years.

As a physician, I am not allowed to reveal any medical information about my patients or their circumstances without their written permission. This confidentiality is sacred. But in this case, that constraint felt inappropriate and irresponsible.

Continue reading “Should Doctors Keep Patients’ HIV Status a Secret?”

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Infectious disease is the most hyperbolic of all medical fields, at least when the media gets ahold of such.

Right now we are to fear a new avian influenza virus. Previously there was another avian influenza strain whose outbreak threatened the world and of course SARS and, more distantly, the ebola virus and the threat of bioterrorism. And on the periphery, as these acute threats come and go, is the persistent threat of super bugs; bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics. Sometimes all antibiotics.

I remember my pharmacology professor in medical school claiming that within our practice lives we would reach the useful end of antibiotics. A claim, literally, that physicians would no longer have any use for antibiotics by the time I reached the end of my career.

Scary stuff but evidence that such outrageousness sells pharmacology in a classroom as much as it does magazines on a news stand. Time magazine a post called “The End of Antibiotics?” referencing a Guardian article along the same lines. This followed a similar 2009 scare article in Time.

Continue reading “Why You Probably Have a Lot Less to Fear From the Latest Superbug Than You Think”

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