1955 - Dawn of the Antibiotic Era and Lessons for the Future

It's easy to fall into despair when pondering the decades long rise of antibiotic-resistant bacterial pathogens and the simultaneous decline in funding for antibacterial discovery, surveillance systems and infection prevention. But this wasn't always the case.  Back before 1969 when it may or may not have been said that "It is time to close the book on infectious diseases, and declare the war against pestilence won," clinicians appreciated antibiotics and even understood the idea of antimicrobial stewardship.

A case in point is this 1955 article in JAMA by GE Burch titled "Cardiology for General Practitioners." After pointing out that the first therapy mentioned by Dr. Burch was antibiotics, I would like to call your attention to a few of his thoughts:

"The most important single therapeutic development in the field of cardiology has been the advent of antibiotics. These drugs have not only made it possible to convert almost all fatal diseases, such as bacterial endocarditis and endarteritis, to almost nonfatal ones but have played an important role in control of infections in all cardiovascular disease states. Until the introduction of these drugs, the physician was often able to manage satisfactorily the cardiac disturbances, such as congestive failure, only to have the patient die of bronchopneumonia or urinary tract infection. The fear of secondary infection as a threat to life was constantly present, and the more chronic or prolonged the illness and the older or more debilitated the patient, the greater was the chance for infection. Once it developed, the physician was virtually helpless, despite the many therapeutic rituals used. Most physicians well remember the preantibiotic era."

and the homage to stewardship:
"It is not necessary, or even advisable, however, to administer those of the so-called broad spectrum type to all patients with cardiovascular disease, without regard for the specific problem."

After reading Dr. Burch's review I'm convinced that our current situation has several potentially modifiable causes: (1) a lack of understanding of how critical effective antimicrobials are to the practice of modern medicine, (2) a failure to include clinical judgment when selecting antimicrobials and finally (3) a pre-antibiotic era that has been completely lost to history. Addressing all of these will be required if we are to avert a post-antibiotic future.


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