Pediatric Dermatology Consult

50 years of pediatric dermatology


The world in pediatric dermatology has changed in incredible ways since 1967. In fact, pediatric dermatology was not an organized specialty until years later! This article will look back at some of the history of pediatric dermatology, exploring how different the field was 50 years ago, and how it has evolved into the vibrant field that it is. By looking at some disease states, and differences in practice in relation to the care of dermatologic conditions in children both by pediatricians and dermatologists, we can see the tremendous evolution in our understanding and management of pediatric skin conditions, and perhaps gain insight into the future.

Pediatric dermatology was fairly “neonatal” 50 years ago, with only a few practitioners in the field. Recognizing that up to 30% of pediatric primary care visits include a skin-related problem, and that there was limited training about skin diseases among primary care practitioners and inconsistent training amongst dermatologists, there was a clinical need for establishing the subspecialty of pediatric dermatology. The first international symposium was held in Mexico City in October 1972, and with this meeting the International Society of Pediatric Dermatology was founded. The Society for Pediatric Dermatology (SPD) began in 1973, with Alvin Jacobs, MD, Samuel Weinberg, MD, Nancy Esterly, MD, Sidney Hurwitz, MD, William Weston, MD, and Coleman Jacobson, MD, as some of the initial “founding mothers and fathers.” The journal Pediatric Dermatology released its first issue in 1982 (35 years ago), and the American Academy of Pediatrics did not have a section of dermatology until 1986.

psoriasis on the feet of a child Lori Farmer/Frontline Medical News
The field of pediatric dermatology has matured rapidly. With the expansion of clinical information over the past 5 decades, there are now multiple standard reference textbooks in pediatric dermatology and subspecialties of pediatric dermatology such as neonatal dermatology, formal fellowship programs around the world, and a formal subspecialty of pediatric dermatology developed by the American Board of Dermatology and recognized by the Accreditation Council of Graduate Medical Education.

Pediatrics and dermatology: The interface

Many of the first generation of pediatric dermatologists trained as pediatricians prior to pursuing their dermatology work, with some being “assigned” dermatology as pediatric experts, while others did formal residencies in dermatology. This history is important, as pediatric dermatology was, and remains, integrated with pediatrics, even while training in dermatology residencies became standard practice. An important part of the development of the field has been the education of pediatricians and dermatologists by pediatric dermatologists, with a strong sensibility that improved training for both generalists and specialists about pediatric skin disease would yield better care for patients and families.

Initially, there were very few pediatric or dermatology programs in the United States that had pediatric dermatologists. Over the succeeding decades, this is now less common, although even now there are still dermatology and pediatric residency programs that do not have a pediatric dermatologist for either training or to serve their patients. The founding leaders of the SPD set a tone of collaboration nationally and internationally, reaching out to pediatric colleagues and dermatology associates from around the world, and establishing superb educational programs for the exchange of ideas, presentation of challenging cases, and promoting state of the art knowledge of the field. Through annual meetings of the SPD, conferences immediately preceding the American Academy of Dermatology annual meetings, the World Congress of Pediatric Dermatology, and other regional and international meetings, the field developed as the number of practitioners grew, and as the specialized published literature reflected new knowledge in diagnosis and therapy.

atopic dermatitis on a baby's foot LucaLorenzelli/Thinkstock
Meetings of the SPD have changed over time, reflecting changes in “communal knowledge” as well as in the ability of dermatologists (and patients and families) to communicate. Until the past decade, meetings often had a significant amount of time dedicated to communal input on “cases in search of a diagnosis” of “cases in search of therapy.” This reflected the important work of the field in the first 30-40 years, defining diseases and conditions, encouraging research work, and sharing clinical experiences and ideas about therapies. The attendees shared experiences and cases, and many disease descriptions were based upon presentations at meetings. An example I recollect was a case of an infant who presented with telangiectases on the face and inguinal area without other rash. This was figured out to be a rare presentation of neonatal lupus. The back story: I had been trained by Dr. Paul Honig to recognize that presentation, as he had seen some cases. It wasn’t in any literature or textbook. Rather than “publish it quickly as a case,” it was presented at an SPD meeting, with a request for others to share their cases if they had any. The resulting article included 7 children, establishing this as a distinct presentation pattern.

Building upon the history of collaboration and reflecting the maturation of the field with a desire to influence the breadth and quantity of research in pediatric dermatology, the Pediatric Dermatology Research Alliance (PeDRA) was formed in 2012. This organization was formed to promote and facilitate high quality collaborative clinical, translational, educational, and basic science research in pediatric dermatology with a vision to create sustainable, collaborative networks to better understand, prevent, treat, and cure dermatologic diseases in children. This network is now composed of over 230 members representing over 68 institutions from the United States and Canada, but including involvement globally from Mexico, Europe, and the Middle East.

Examples of changing perspectives: hemangiomas

A good way to look at evolution of the field is take a look at some of the similarities and differences in clinical practice in relation to common and uncommon disease states.

A great example is hemangiomas. Some of the first natural history studies on hemangiomas were done in the early 1960s, establishing that many lesions had a typical clinical course of fairly rapid growth, plateau, and involution over time. Of course, the identification of hemangiomas of infancy (or “HOI” in the trade), was confused with vascular malformations, and no one had recognized variant tumors that were distinct, such as rapidly involuting and noninvoluting congenital hemangiomas (RICHs or NICHs), tufted angiomas, and hemangioendotheliomas. PHACE syndrome (posterior fossa brain malformations) had yet to be described (that was done in 1996 by Ilona Frieden and her colleagues). For a time period, hemangiomas were treated with X-rays, before the negative impact of such radiation was acknowledged. For many years after that, even deforming and functionally significant lesions were “followed clinically” for natural involution, presumably a backlash from the radiation therapy interventions.

infantile hemangioma Courtesy of
Of course, the breakthrough of propranolol for hemangioma treatment profoundly changed hemangioma management, shifting “state of the art treatment” from systemic steroids (and perhaps laser) to an incredibly effective medical therapy newly studied, tested, and approved by regulatory authorities. And how intriguing that this was developed after the chance (but skilled) observation that a child who developed hypertension as a side effect of systemic steroids for nasal hemangioma treatment, and was prescribed propranolol for the hypertension, had his nasal hemangioma rapidly shrink, with a response superior and much quicker than the response to corticosteroids.

This story also reflects how organized research efforts helped with the evolution of knowledge and clinical care. The Hemangioma of Infancy Group was formed to take a collaborative approach to characterize and study hemangiomas and related tumors. Beginning with energetic, insightful pediatric dermatologists, and little funding, they changed our knowledge base of how hemangiomas present, the risk factors for their development and the characteristics and multiple organ findings associated with PHACE and other syndromic hemangiomas.

Procedural pediatric dermatology: Tremendous revolution in surgery and laser

The first generation of pediatric dermatologists were considered medical dermatologist specialists. And how important this specialty work was! Acne, atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, diaper and seborrheic dermatitis, and rare genetic syndromes, these conditions were a major part of the work of early pediatric dermatologists (and remain so now). What was not common was for pediatric dermatologists to have procedural or surgical practices, while this now is routinely part of the work of specialists in the field. How did this shift occur?

The fundamental shift began to occur with the introduction of the pulsed dye laser in 1989 and the publication of a seminal article in the New England Journal of Medicine (1989 Feb 16;320[7]:416-21) on its utility in treating port-wine stains in children with minimal scarring. Vascular lesions including port-wine stains were common, and pediatric dermatologists managed these patients for both diagnosis and medical management. Also, dermatology residencies at this time offered training in cutaneous surgery, excisions (including Mohs surgery) and repairs, and trainees in pediatric dermatology were “trained up” to high levels of expertise. As lasers were incorporated into dermatology residency work and practices, pediatric dermatologists had the exposure and skill to do this work. An added advantage was having the pediatric knowledge of how to handle children and adolescents in an age appropriate manner, and consideration of methods to minimize the pain and anxiety of procedures. Within a few years, pediatric dermatologists were at the forefront of the use of topical anesthetics (EMLA and liposomal lidocaine) and had general anesthesia privileges for laser and excisional surgery.

So while pediatric dermatologists still do “small procedures” every hour in most practices (cryotherapy for warts, cantharidin for molluscum, shave and punch biopsies), a subset now have extensive procedural practices, which in recent years has extended to pigment lesion lasers (to treat nevus of Ota), hair lasers (to treat perineal areas to prevent pilonidal cyst recurrence or to treat hirsutism), and combinations of lasers to treat hypertrophic, constrictive, and/or deforming scars).

Inflammatory skin disorders: Bread and butter ... and peanut butter?

The care of pediatric inflammatory skin disorders has evolved, but more slowly for some diseases than others. Acne vulgaris now is recognized as much more common under age 12 years than previously, presumably reflecting earlier pubertal changes in our preteens. Over the past 30 years, therapy has evolved with the use of topical retinoids (still underused by pediatricians, considered a “practice gap”), hormonal therapy with combined oral contraceptives, and oral isotretinoin, a powerful but highly effective systemic agent for severe and refractory acne. Specific pediatric guidelines came much later. Pediatric acne expert recommendations were formulated by the American Acne and Rosacea Society and endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2013 (Pediatrics. 2013;131:S163-86). Over the past few years, there is a push by experts for more judicious use of antibiotics for acne (oral and topical) to minimize the emergence of bacterial resistance.

Psoriasis has been a condition that has been “behind the revolution,” in that no biologic agent was approved for pediatric psoriasis in the United States until several months ago, lagging behind Europe and elsewhere in the world by almost a decade. Adult psoriasis has been recognized to be associated with a broad set of comorbidities, including obesity and early heart disease, and there is now research on how children are at risk as well, and new recommendations on how to screen children with psoriasis. Moderate to severe psoriasis in adults is now tremendously controllable with biologic agents targeting TNF-alpha, IL 12/23, and IL-17. Etanercept has been approved for children with psoriasis aged 4 years and older, and other biologic agents are under study.

Atopic dermatitis now is ready for its revolution! AD has increased in prevalence from around 5% of the pediatric population 30-plus years ago to 10%-15%. Treatment of most individuals has remained the same over the decades: Good skin care, frequent moisturizers, topical corticosteroids for flares, management of infection if noted. The topical calcineurin inhibitors (TCIs) broadened the therapeutic approach when introduced in 2000 and 2001, but the boxed warning resulted in some practitioners minimizing their utilization of these useful agents.

Dr. Lawrence F. Eichenfield with a young patient.

Unfortunately, the combination of minimal new therapies over decades and phobias about potential side effects of topical steroids and TCIs has resulted in a tremendous amount of undertreatment of AD, with many children walking around (and not sleeping too well) with high body surface area involvement, secondary infections, and sequelae including ADHD, anxiety, and depression. The pediatric dermatology community, together with adult dermatology (and allergy) specialists, are now working aggressively to minimize AD’s effects. New initiatives, including improving education of patients and families with learning tools, are being developed, based on studies showing how they can impact disease. A new agent, a topical PDE-4 inhibitor (crisaborole), was recently approved for AD for ages 2 years and older. This drug is not a corticosteroid nor a TCI, and was approved without a specific time limitation for its use. In addition, the first prospectively designed biologic agent developed for AD, a receptor blocker that influences IL4 and IL13, has been approved in adults with moderate to severe AD, and is already under study in children and adolescents. The use of biologic agents and/or small molecules targeting the inflammation of more severe AD in children may transform management.

It has been recognized for years that children with AD have higher risk of developing food allergies than children without AD. A changing understanding of how early food exposure may induce tolerance is changing the world of allergy and influencing the care of children with AD. This is where the peanut butter (or other processed peanut, such as “Bamba”) may be life saving. New guidelines have come from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases recommending that infants with severe eczema (or egg allergy, or both) have introduction of age-appropriate peanut-containing food as early as 4-6 months of age to reduce the risk of development of peanut allergy. It is recommended that these infants undergo early evaluation for possible sensitization to peanut protein, with referral to allergists for skin prick tests or serum IgE screens (though if positive, referral to allergists is appropriate), and assess the safety of going ahead with early feeding. It is hoped that following these new guidelines can minimize the development of peanut allergy.

The future

Where will pediatric skin disease, or more importantly, skin health over a lifetime be in 50 years? Can we cure or prevent the consequences of our lethal and life altering genetic diseases such as epidermolysis bullosa or our neurocutaneous disorders? Will our new insights into birthmarks (they are mostly somatic mutations) allow us to form specific, personalized therapies to minimize their impact? Will we be using computers equipped with imaging devices and algorithms to assess our patients’ moles, papules, and nodules? Will our vaccines have wiped out warts, molluscum, and perhaps, acne? Will we have cured our inflammatory skin disorders, or perhaps prevented them by interventions in the neonatal period? No predictions will be offered here, other than that we can look forward to incredible changes for our future generations of health care practitioners, patients, and families.

Dr. Eichenfield is chief of pediatric and adolescent dermatology at Rady Children’s Hospital–San Diego and professor of dermatology and pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego. Dr. Eichenfield has served as a consultant for Anacor/Pfizer and Regeneron/Sanofi. Email him at [email protected].

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