Be Specific: A Review of Pneumonia Before Antibiotics

When I lecture on existential infectious disease threats -- a subject I am writing a book on -- antimicrobial resistance is what I usually will list as #1, above influenza, above Ebola, above HIV, and definitely above Zika. To me, as a practicing infectious disease and critical care physician, treating infections with multiple-drug resistant organisms is something I do all day and all night. 

When I am asked how to reverse the trend of injudicious antibiotic prescribing which has driven antimicrobial resistance to new heights, I reply we have to be more specific. By being specific I mean that we have to not be satisfied with a generic diagnosis of upper respiratory tract infection, community-acquired pneumonia, or the like. Such non-specific diagnoses engender empiric broad-spectrum antimicrobial therapy when a narrower agent--or often no antibiotic at all--is actually indicated. It seems like it may have always been this way, but that is not the case.

In Pneumonia Before Antibiotics: Therapeutic Evolution and Evaluation in 20th Century America, Harvard's Dr. Scott Podolosky (someone who I have heard lecture before) provides the much needed history of how such a menace as the Captain of the Men of Death was handled prior to the advent of antimicrobials (first sulfa drugs and then penicillin). In a word therapy was specific.

The chief means community-acquired pneumococcal pneumonia -- still a major infectious disease killer--was treated was with type-specific serum. Typing individual patient's strain of pneumococcus might sound as extremely complex and delay-ridden to a modern physician, but it was neither in an era before antibiotics. Podolosky's book, which is ripe with historical detail, illustrates just how this was accomplished and how pneumonia was construed as a public health threat that spawned typing and serum centers nationwide to get the correct type-specific serum to the patient in hours!

The most interesting part of this book which is littered with mentions of such iconic figures in infectious disease as William Osler and Maxwell Finland (to me) is how once sulfa drugs -- cheap, easy to administer, and non-specific -- appeared, the clinical paradigm rocked and shifted as physicians contemplated which countermeasure to use and when combination therapy might be warranted. I expect this same debate to recur soon as the market in infectious disease therapeutics begins to expand to include such specific therapies as monoclonal antibodies, bacteriophages, lysins, and the like.

It will be essential for the forthcoming debates and research on the optimal treatment of infectious diseases to be informed by the important context Dr. Podolosky's work provides.