ID dermatology: Advancements, but new challenges, over 50 years


“We finally found something that helps”

“We’ve [also] come a really long way with genital wart treatment,” Dr. Kovarik said.

It started with approval of topical imiquimod in 1997. “Before that, we were just killing one wart here and one wart there” but they would often come back and pop up in other areas. Injectable interferon was an option at the time, but people didn’t like all the needles.

With imiquimod, “we finally [had] a way to target HPV [human papillomavirus] and not just scrape” or freeze one wart at a time, and “we were able to generate an inflammatory response in the whole area to clear the virus.” Working with HIV patients, “I see sheets and sheets of confluent warts throughout the whole genital area; to try to freeze that is impossible. Now I have a way to get rid of [genital] warts and keep them away even if you have a big cluster,” she said.

“Sometimes, we’ll do both liquid nitrogen and imiquimod. That’s a good way to tackle people who have a high burden of warts,” Dr. Kovarik noted. Other effective treatments have come out as well, including an ointment formulation of sinecatechins, extracted from green tea, “but you have to put it on several times a day, and insurance companies don’t cover it often,” she said.

Intralesional cidofovir is also proving to be boon for potentially malignant refractory warts in HIV and transplant patients. “It’s an incredible treatment. We can inject that antiviral into warts and get rid of them. We finally found something that helps” these people, Dr. Kovarik said.

Dr. Theodore Rosen, professor of dermatology, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston (June 2020)

Dr. Theodore Rosen

The HPV vaccine Gardasil is making a difference, as well. In addition to cervical dysplasia and anogenital cancers, it protects against two condyloma strains. Dr. Rosen said he’s seeing fewer cases of genital warts now than when he started practicing, likely because of the vaccine.

“Organisms that weren’t pathogens are now pathogens”

Antibiotic resistance probably tops the list for what’s changed in a bad way in ID dermatology since 1970. Dr. Rosen remembers at the start of his career that “we never worried about antibiotic resistance. We’d put people on antibiotics for acne, rosacea, and we’d keep them on them for 3 years, 6 years”; resistance wasn’t on the radar screen and was not mentioned once in the first issue of Dermatology News, which was packed with articles and ran 24 pages.

The situation is different now. Driven by decades of overuse in agriculture and the medical system, antibiotic resistance is a concern throughout medicine, and unfortunately, “we have not come nearly as far as fast with antibiotics,” at least the ones dermatologists use, “as we have with antivirals,” Dr. Tyring said.

For instance, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), first described in the United States in 1968, is “no longer the exception to the rule, but the rule” itself, he said, with carbuncles, furuncles, and abscesses not infrequently growing out MRSA. There are also new drug-resistant forms of old problems like gonorrhea and tuberculosis, among other developments, and impetigo has shifted since 1970 from mostly a Streptococcus infection easily treated with penicillin to often a Staphylococcus disease that’s resistant to it. There’s also been a steady march of new pathogens, including the latest one, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, which has been recognized as having a variety of skin manifestations.

“No matter how smart we think we are, nature has a way of putting us back in our place,” Dr. Rosen said.

The bright spot is that “we’ve become very adept at identifying and characterizing” microbes “based on techniques we didn’t even have when I started practicing,” such as polymerase chain reaction. “It has taken a lot of guess work out of treating infectious diseases,” he said.

The widespread use of immunosuppressives such as cyclophosphamide, mycophenolate, azathioprine, rituximab, and other agents used in conjunction with solid organ transplantation, has also been a challenge. “We are seeing infections with really odd organisms. Just recently, I had a patient with fusarium in the skin; it’s a fungus that lives in the dirt. I saw a patient with a species of algae” that normally lives in stagnant water, he commented. “We used to get [things like that] back on reports, and we’d throw them away. You can’t do that anymore. Organisms that weren’t pathogens in the past are now pathogens,” particularly in immunosuppressed people, Dr. Rosen said.

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