Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road? To Get Antibiotics : A Review of Big Chicken

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One of the most pressing aspect of the antibiotic resistance crisis is the role of antibiotics in agriculture and the link with human infections. This is an aspect of the problem that has received mixed treatment in the past. It was clear that agricultural use of antibiotics was a problem but its impact on human infections was debated, not well known, and not conclusive though all doctors probably could recite the statistic that 80% of antibiotics sold in the US were for used in animals. Many people, myself included, focused heavily on the superbugs stalking our hospitals and ICU and thought almost exclusively about infection control and human antibiotic stewardship.

However, with the publication of Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats, I suspect things will change. This book written by, in my opinion, the premier science journalist, Maryn McKenna, is something extraordinary. I read books in this genre continually and I can saw that McKenna’s ability to tell a compelling non-fiction story while weaving together history, politics, science, and medicine in a manner that teaches and leaves the reader completely captivated is unrivalled.

Big Chicken, which published in 2017, is much more than a book on unraveling antibiotic use in chickens, who are fed “routine doses of antibiotics on almost every day of their lives.” It is nothing short than a history of the chicken industry in the US — which breeds “for everything but flavor: for abundance, for consistency, for speed” — and it is only by understanding antibiotic use in that context that one can really grasp the issue. This is the book’s chief value.

The book teems with so much good information that it is impossible to capture in a short blog post. Some highlights include:

  • How antibiotics facilitated the transformation of grain into muscle making an “active backyard bird into a fast-growing, slow-moving, docile block of protein”. Slaughter weights of chickens have doubled in the past 70 years and can be achieved in half the time due largely to the use of growth promoting antibiotics, which allowed chickens to become more than just egg-layers to most farmers.

  • The story of the McNugget

  • The use of antibiotic-laced harpoons to shoot whales!

  • The questionable role of a Mississippi Democrat congressman

  • The change in culture that sparked companies like Chick-fil-A and Perdue to revaluate antibiotic use

The book also has great anecdotes of disease outbreak investigations — one featuring a young Mike Osterholm — and scientific studies that increasingly linked antibiotic use in animals to huma infections. The book also discusses how policy evolved with respect to this issue.

For anyone interested in a great story that traces the roots of a major scientific/medical problem, I highly recommend this book. For those who work in infectious disease, it is required reading (as are all of Maryn McKenna’s books).

Antibiotic Resistant Infections Kill More than Car Accidents: A Review of Superbugs

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I often say that the biggest infectious disease problem humans face is that of antimicrobial resistance. I am not alone in this assessment and today there are myriad books describing  this problem and its many facets. However, a recent book I read on this topic, Superbugs: An Arms Race Against Bacteria, provides a unique lens to view the problem: economics. Below I give a short overview of the prime value I took from this book.

Superbugs is a book that stems from a high level review of antimicrobial resistance commissioned by then UK prime minister David Cameron and is written, not by scientific subject matter experts, but by economists and policymakers (Jim O'Neill, William Hall, and Anthony McDonell).

I think it is not difficult for anyone to see that a drug-resistant infection will be, on average, more expensive to treat than a drug-sensitive one. This cost disparity exists for several reasons that include the expense of switching therapy to a an appropriate regimen, the expense of isolation of patients with drug resistant infections, and the increased severity of illness because time to appropriate antibiotic therapy is delayed. 

The book is divided into two parts that focus, respectively, on the problem and solutions to drug resistance. To me, the chief value of the book is the authors attempt to quantify the problem of antimicrobial resistance because as they note a whole different audience -- beyond the health one -- is more receptive to a quantitative analysis. Several of their estimates are worth noting.

  • 1.5 million people die of antimicrobial resistant infections annually (more than die i automobile accidents)
  • Total worldwide costs (direct and lost productivity) are approximately $864 billio

The book provides a comprehensive overview of the economic challenges inherent with antibiotics: namely, stewardship programs that diminish revenue from new antibiotics, low prices of antibiotics vs. other pharmaceuticals, and the ability to substitute antibiotics.

One of the most valuable portions of the book, to me, is their discussion of diagnostic tests. Much of inappropriate antibiotic prescribing is done for viral infections. It is thus obvious that by employing diagnostic tests to determine whether a patient's symptoms are caused by a virus or a bacteria and which virus it might be could curtail injudicious antibiotic prescribing (and provide valuable epidemiological information) however they are seldom employed despite their availability. Superbugs delves into the dilemma that has stifled the routine use of diagnostics for infectious disease contrasting it the use of advanced diagnostics tests that are standard of care for cancer. 

Chief amongst these obstacles, as they note and I have experienced first hand, is the hospital siloing of costs. Because a multiplex point-of-care molecular diagnostic test deployed during an office visit for bronchitis is more than the entire cost of the visit plus the inappropriate antibiotic prescription that will likely result, testing is foregone. But economics is not only about the seen, but also the unseen, and taking a wider perspective allows one to realize that the costs of antimicrobial resistance driven by the inappropriate prescribing outweighs the cost of running a diagnostic test. 

The book concludes with policy recommendations to solve what the authors believe to be a tractable problem that are informed by a thorough analysis of the problem that are familiar to those that follow this issue and include increasing awareness, increased R&D, and the inclusion of all relevant parties (including agriculture). 

I recommend Superbugs to those who would like an up-to-date holistic analysis of a pressing public-- and individual -- health threat. 

A Paean to Pharmaceutical Innovation: A Review of Miracle Cure

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When you think about the power of the human mind to solve problems, it is difficult to overestimate what impact the discovery of antibiotics have had for the human race. They almost single-handedly rendered many deadly infectious instantly benign (of course until antibiotic misuse exacerbated resistance). While many people know the story of the moldy petri dish, there is a lot more to tell. William Rosen, in Miracle Cure: The Creation of Antibiotics and Modern Medicine, tells that story expertly.

This book, published earlier in the year, spans the entirety of modern medicine using antibiotics as the lens from which to view the field. This might seem odd as antibiotics represent only one component of medicine but Rosen shows just how their discovery changed the game.

The discovery of antibiotics was scientifically dependent on many antecedent discoveries regarding the causes of disease, microscopy, the theory of the cell, and the search for magic bullets to name but a few.

Once antibiotics were discovered, the fact that a "miracle cure" with true efficacy (unlike patent medicines, folk remedies, and homeopathy) a whole structure of medicine that could actually do something to ameliorate illness was created. And with that the need for randomized controlled trials, rational drug design, and the pharmaceutical industry. Indeed, Rosen states that "the machine of pharmaceutical innovation...wouldn’t exist, would never even have been built, but for the antibiotic revolution”

Rosen is clearly thankful and appreciative (as am I) for the innovators in pharmaceutical firms that made miracle cures like antibiotics possible. As Rosen aptly writes, "Tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of victims of a thousand diseases from leukemia to river blindness are alive and thriving entirely because of a drug breakthrough. For them, and especially for the literally uncountable number of people whose bacterial infections, from strep throat to typhus to anthrax, were cured by a ten-day regimen of antibiotics, the bargain probably seems an extraordinarily one-sided one.”

Miracle Cure takes you from contemplating Galen's ideas about the four humors all the way to thinking about aplastic anemia caused by chloramphenicol -- a difficult task the book accomplishes excellently. I highly recommend it to those interested in the history of medicine, the history of the pharmaceutical industry, and the world of infectious diseases.

Don't Finish Your Antibiotics -- They Probably Weren't Necessary

It's a tale as old as time: when you're prescribed a course of antibiotics, finish it no matter if you feel better after a few doses. The implicit rationale behind that maxim was that if one is being prescribed antibiotics, it is because they have been accurately diagnosed with a bacterial infection in which antibiotic treatment will be helpful. 

Every antibiotic one takes has two aspects to its nature. Antibiotics, even narrow spectrum ones, impact not only the offending bacteria but also others who are bystanders. Those bystanders are reduced in population opening up space for more dangerous bacteria as well as putting pressure on bacterial populations to select for and evolve resistance (collateral selection). Broad spectrum antibiotics do this on a larger scale and that's why they should be used only when the clinical situation warrants it (i.e. wide uncertainty about the cause of a patient's symptoms). 

There is a risk benefit calculus that must occur with each dose of an antibiotic. Does the risk of antibiotic resistant bacteria developing and antibiotic side effects occurring outweigh the benefit of the antibiotic. Obviously, in a viral infection the risk strongly outweighs the benefit.

The other aspect of this issue is that often antibiotic courses, even when they are needed, are prescribed for arbitrary amounts of time. Courses of 7 days, 10 days, 14 days may have little to no rationale behind them. More and more studies are showing shorter course therapies are optimally effective and there has been a movement to shorten courses of antibiotics as much as possible. A new piece in the British Medical Journal is a tour de force  as is this excellent piece by Brad Spellberg. 

The point is that if an antibiotic is prescribed injudiciously -- as most are -- each unnecessary dose one takes is harmful. Also, each prolonged course of antibiotics that exceeds what is necessary confers unneeded risk. Of course, when a course is appropriately and rationally constructed to ameliorate the infection one should take the prescribed dose so as not to foster recrudescence of the infection with possibly resistant organisms (targeted selection).

Antibiotics are a precious resource that changed the face of medicine and improved human life immeasurably. The threat of antibiotic resistance is one of the most pressing problems medicine faces. Exploding arbitrary dogma to optimize antibiotic use will be essential.

Taking Candy From Strangers or Antibiotics from Injudicious Urgent Care Prescribers

One of my maxims when it comes to antibiotic stewardship is that stand-alone urgent care centers, those unaffiliated with a hospital, engage in a race-to-the-bottom to see just how inappropriate their antibiotic use can be. In an environment where patient "satisfaction" (and not patient clinical outcomes) becomes the currency, any action that pleases the "customer" and results in a repeat visit or goodwill is valued over those that do not have those attributes--irrespective of the veracity of the scientific and medical principles behind it. 

Walking out of an urgent care center with a prescription for antibiotics has become the new lollipop and is often treated that way by the providers who think of these resources as a parting gift, rather than a scientific achievement that is crucial to civilization. 

I am writing about this today because one of my friends -- a highly intelligent, assertive, and infectiously snarky nurse with an advanced degree -- related an experience she recently had with the dominant stand-alone urgent care provider in the Pittsburgh area. My friend had symptoms of an upper respiratory infection and, because of her knowledge coupled to a need to be around an immunosuppressed individual, she sought to find out if she was suffering from influenza, might benefit from antiviral treatment, and possibly need to limit her exposure to the immunosuppressed person for fear of passing the infection. Needless to say, her test (which was likely the poorly sensitive rapid influenza test that has vanishingly few uses in light of the arrival of recent CLIA-waived PCR influenza tests that everyone should be using) was negative and, instead of counseling her regarding the limitations of the test and the likelihood with high influenza circulation rates in the area she likely had influenza, an antibiotic was offered. My friend predictably balked at this, and as is her style, drew the physician out and got him to skewer science and push an antibiotic on her (which she refused) because of what he deemed the rate of secondary bacterial infection. His reply to her protestations is even more scarier than the injudicious use of antibiotics he advocated: "I teach this stuff." Suffice it say, she recovered and took no antibiotics.

We have a long way to go to properly steward antibiotics and not all patients are as astute as my friend. I realize that I am painting with too broad a brush and there is likely a lot of appropriate prescribing going on in urgent care centers. Additionally, hospital-based providers are in no way immune from injudicious prescribing either. However,  placing "patient satisfaction" above justified clinical care in a "have it your way" Burger King healthcare culture, exemplified by many urgent care centers, is something that needs addressing. 

That last part about Burger King was probably unfair....to Burger King, which practices judicious antibiotic use as it has ceased serving antibiotic-laden chicken.