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February 8th, 2015

Snowstorms-a-Plenty ID Link-o-Rama

my house feb 2015A few items to discuss as we settle in for yet another Boston megastorm:

  • The measles outbreak continues to bring forth excellent commentaries on the selfishness of vaccine-refusers, with this one from Frank Bruni one of my recent favorites. Question: Will it take a hospitalization — or even worse, a death — of an American child with measles to stop this ridiculousness?
  • This piece in the Wall Street Journal describes the negotiations going on behind the scenes between pharmaceutical companies and payers regarding HCV therapy. I’m sure something like this has happened before in non-ID fields (Oncology or Rheumatology would be my best bet), but I have never experienced anything like this as an ID doctor — meaning, both the clinician and the patient seem to be completely left out of the discussion. Hello? Can anyone hear us?
  • Can a fecal microbiota transplant from an overweight donor lead to obesity in the recipient? That’s the implication in a case report over in Open Forum infectious Diseases. While the case does not prove causality (other factors could have contributed to the weight gain), the plausibility of the FMT leading to obesity is at the very least suggested in the clinical course and supported by animal data where indeed the microbiome plays a major role in metabolism. Don’t miss this excellent editorial from real experts in the field.
  • More evidence that booster vaccines for hepatitis B are probably not needed, at least according to a study in health care workers. It’s that “long-lasting amnestic response” — meaning even when antibodies decline, exposure to the antigen is rapid and protective. The hepatitis B vaccine was an extraordinary and unheralded major advance in safety for healthcare workers.
  • There are lots and lots of strange bacteria in the NYC subway, says this fascinating, much-publicized and (let’s face it) extremely unsurprising report published in Cell. Best part: “Almost half of all DNA present on the subway’s surfaces matches no known organism.” If I might make a personal comment: when my family moved to New York City in the 1970s, there were no doubt even more bizarre microbes living down there. Anyone have a spare autoclave?
  • The coformulations of atazanavir/cobicistat and darunavir/cobicistat are now available. Definitely more convenient to have them together (avoiding selective skipping of ritonavir), and if they’re price-equivalent to the separate dosing of the drugs, then they eventually will be widely adopted. Otherwise — and especially with the approval of generic ritonavir — they could face a tricky pharmacoeconomic challenge. Now throw in 300 mg of lamivudine and pull of a GARDEL study equivalent, now that could be transformative.
  • Wonderful “Call to Arms” about the crisis facing Infectious Diseases by Ron Nahass, who in our field is something of a true visionary: He understands – and fortunately can communicate — the value of ID doctors independent of billing units in a fee-for-service environment. Required reading for the gloomy ID doc (and there are lots of us out there). My favorite line: “Develop a true value of our intellectual capital.” In other words, get paid for being smart, not for doing a procedure.
  • Being cold could increase the chances of catching a cold. Score one for common wisdom!

As the latest storm intensifies up here in Boston, it’s worth disabusing the world at large of the perception that the whole Northeastern United States has the same weather. Today the high temperature in Washington DC was 68 — yes, you read that right — Philadelphia had high 40s and obviously no snow, and New York (funky subway bacteria notwithstanding) had a dreary but otherwise very manageable winter day.

Here, it’s 15 degrees, and 12-18 inches of snow are expected over the next 24 hours.

Speaking of snow — here’s something to do in your spare time:

Snow Circles from Beauregard, Steamboat Aerials on Vimeo.

January 28th, 2015

Quick Question: Should We Still Be Recommending This Year’s Flu Vaccine?

From a football-obsessed primary care provider, written to me on one very snowy day in New England:

Hi Paul,
I’ve been reading about this year’s flu vaccine, and how ineffective it is. Not surprisingly, my patients have been hearing this too, and it has only increased their reluctance to go through with it. Should I just cut my losses and stop recommending it this year? Seems we have much more important things to worry about, such as measles in Disney and deflated footballs.
Go Pats!
p.s. I think the Pats are really geniuses. And they realized that if they pump the balls to 11.5 PSI right before the game, then heat them (microwave? hair dryer? ) to get up to 12.8 PSI, then hand to the refs who measure at at least 12.5 PSI, then let them cool down for a while. And, as with taxes, if it doesn’t say you can’t do it, then you can do it. Genius.

Dear Kerry,

The quick answer is yes, we should still be recommending it, but I share your pain. (I mean about the flu vaccine, not about Deflategate.) My experience this year is that when I suggest a flu vaccine, my reluctant patients not only decline, but look at me as if I’ve recommended that they undergo a colonoscopy without sedation. You must be kidding me, everyone knows this year’s vaccine is a dog.

kid with fluSo why recommend it? First, it still works some of the time, even if the H3N2 match isn’t good (there are influenza B strains as well that are included in the vaccine). 23% effective is better than nothing, which means that these 23% not only won’t get sick with flu themselves, but they won’t spread it to the people who are the most vulnerable (the very young, the elderly, and pregnant women).

Second, there’s really nothing else out there that works, unless you want to take oseltamivir continuously, all flu season – this is not recommended, and would be very expensive. I suppose our patients could seal themselves off in a polyurethane bubble until Spring — which would be particularly difficult if they like to ski.

Third, there’s at least a little evidence that even if the flu vaccine doesn’t work, it might attenuate the severity of clinical influenza, reducing the risk of pneumonia and hospitalization. As an optimist, I plan to believe this last item until someone proves it’s not true.

Your email also gives me a chance to link a truly outstanding review over on Medscape called, Why is Influenza So Difficult to Prevent and Treat? It’s an interview with two experts in the field, Drs. Andrew Pavia and Gregory Poland, and really the title should have been expanded to “Why is Influenza So Difficult to Predict, Prevent, and Treat?” I always get asked about the upcoming flu season by my friends, and the honest answer is — WE HAVE NO CLUE.

The Medscape piece is top-notch, a very readable update on these issues. I learned a lot about this tricky infection, including the key fact that if we delayed choosing the strain for next year’s vaccine for a few months, we’d probably have a better vaccine match from year-to-year. Plus I was introduced to the seat belts analogy, which goes like this:  “Seat belts may not protect from high-speed crashes all the time, but some protection is better than none.” Exactly!

So go ahead and continue to recommend it. I find that if my patients balk, I don’t push it, but better to have a uniform medical position on flu vaccine than to waffle.

And about that game on Sunday — 20 days until pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training.

January 21st, 2015

No Response

bwhNot surprisingly, it’s a sad, sad day at the Brigham. Yesterday a man walked into the hospital and shot one of our cardiac surgeons, then shot himself. Both died.

Amidst the grief, horror, and shock that we all are feeling, I was also reminded of the year I spent working in England before going to medical school. Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself frequently defending our country against the numerous criticisms directed at the United States by my (mostly) good-natured English colleagues and friends.

Many of the critiques centered around food and drink — but not all.

  • “Sax [last name a sign of affection, very Public School], how could you Yanks eat that vile peanut butter [or beef jerky, or Velveeta Cheese, or corn dog, or crispy bacon]?
    Response: Hey, some of those things are great — I love peanut butter, and bet you would too if you tried it. And as for our crispy bacon, it’s way superior to the greasy soft stuff you guys serve with breakfast. And don’t get me started on marmite – disgusting.
  • “Sax, seems like America is a vast place, vast in both landscape and human girth. Is it because everyone eats at McDonald’s every day? I guess your only monarch is Burger King.”
    Response:  My apologies for McDonald’s (which, for the record, seems to have caught on quite nicely in your country too), but you must understand that American cuisine is as varied as our waistlines.
  • “Sax, why does American beer look, smell, and taste like watered-down piss?”
    Response:  Why does British beer smell and taste like wet shoes? Warm wet shoes, no less.
  • “Sax, how can you live in a country so barbaric, so uncivilised, that any madman can get a gun and go out and shoot someone?”

No response.

Just sadness.



January 18th, 2015

Opposition to HCV Screening Raises a Few Interesting Points — But Has Some Really Wacky “Facts”

creepy blue person with liverOver in the British Medical Journal, there’s a provocative editorial entitled, “Is widespread screening for hepatitis C justified?”

Based on the title alone, you can guess the authors’ answer to that question — a resounding “No!”

By taking this position, of course, they are opposing some very data-driven and well-respected arbiters of policy and clinical practice. These include not only the Centers for Disease Control — which started recommending universal screening in 2012 to people born between 1945–1965 (the years of peak incidence) — as well as the World Health Organization, and, for good measure, those staggeringly data-driven folks from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF).

Remember, these USPSTF guys are a scrupulous bunch, opposing many forms of screening for insufficient evidence. Just the very fact that they endorse HCV screening is almost reason enough to accept it as worthwhile. Indeed, they reversed their earlier opposition to HCV screening with their latest review — and did so even before interferon-free therapies became standard of care!

(Why is it so hard to say and write that combination of letters? — “USPSTF” reminds me of the confirmation codes that the airlines use for flights.)

The key points of the of the BMJ opinion piece go like this, roughly in order:

  1. The natural history of hepatitis C suggests it is generally benign.
  2. Achieving a “sustained virology response,” or SVR, is only a surrogate marker for the important clinical endpoint of liver disease. Proof:  Some people who achieve SVR still go on to have decompensated disease and hepatocellular carcinoma.
  3. SVR does not mean HCV is cured anyway.
  4. Screening will be dangerous because the treatment could be more harmful than the disease; we also need long-term safety data on the newer drugs.
  5. Before we adopt widespread HCV screening, a large randomized trial should be done comparing broad to risk-based screening, with clinical outcomes as the primary endpoint.

There’s always room for some dialogue in any policy statement, and the editorial does raise some important points.

But let’s take these above positions one at a time:

  1. Most people with HCV will never develop clinically significant liver disease. Yes, this is true, but HCV is still the leading single cause of end-stage liver disease leading to liver transplantation in the USA; HCV can furthermore cause numerous non-hepatic complications; and a chronic infection with high rates of ongoing replication is probably bad for general health, which almost certainly accounts for the higher rates of fatigue, nausea, pain, and decreased quality of life in those with HCV versus those without.
  2. SVR is only a surrogate marker. If you’re a real skeptic, you’d argue that the better clinical outcomes observed in patients who achieve SVR versus those that don’t might be confounded by their better health at baseline. On the other hand, many believe that the benefits of SVR have been convincingly shown through clinical cohorts, adjustment of baseline characteristics, and improvement in liver histology among those who achieve SVR. And what about those patients with SVR who still get liver-related illness? Most had advanced liver disease before they were treated — one could argue that if they’d been diagnosed decades earlier and cured, their liver disease never would have happened.
  3. “Sustained virological response is not a cure, writes the paper confidently. This is certainly a minority view, and seems to be based on the existence of case reports of late relapses, with a frequency of no greater than 3% (and probably lower). Isn’t the very existence of these papers good evidence that most of the time SVR is a cure? Why would any of them be published unless they were exceedingly rare events?
  4. Treatment is harmful — in most patients, more harmful than the disease. For currently relevant treatments, they cite this paper, where “3% of participants taking sofosbuvir experienced serious adverse events compared with 1% in the peginterferon plus ribavirin arm.” But these data are for any serious adverse event, not just those that are drug-related. Bad things can happen to patients who are in clinical trials, especially trials that include patients with chronic diseases — it doesn’t mean the drugs caused them. In trials of newer HCV drugs, especially those that don’t include interferon or ribavirin, serious adverse events that are conclusively drug-related are extraordinarily rare. And one last thing: No review of HCV therapy today should list side effects of telaprevir or boceprevir as a reason for avoiding treatment (both are cited). These drugs are no longer recommended — and the former isn’t even available. Even interferon is rarely indicated today.
  5. We need to do a large randomized strategy trial of broad versus targeted HCV screening with clinical outcomes. It’s true we do not definitively know that broad screening will prevent liver disease or death beyond a risk-based approach. But unfortunately, patients can be infected with HCV (and unaware of that fact) for decades before showing up with advanced liver disease. Seems that a cheap, reliable blood test is highly justified when we now have such safe and effective treatments.

I agree with the authors that longer-term follow-up data of treated patients are needed, especially using our currently available drugs.

The good news is that with thousands taking of advantage of HCV therapy — including many patients who could never be treated in the interferon era — and with over 90% of these patients cured (there, I said it), we shouldn’t have to wait long.


January 7th, 2015

Are the STI Screening Guidelines for Gay Men Overkill? (And Pedro Video.)

Dominican RepublicOur “healthcare system” recently distributed a set of guidelines entitled, Primary care for gay men: screening and treatment recommendations.

It included, among other things, recommendations for screening for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and anal cancer. The former it adopted from CDC guidelines, which are this this:

Screening at least once a year for syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea for all sexually active gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (MSM). [Emphasis theirs.] MSM who have multiple or anonymous partners should be screened more frequently for STDs (i.e., at 3-to-6 month intervals)

The anal cancer screening guidelines were kind of made up — pretty much like all recommendations for this form of cancer, since we don’t have solid data linking screening to a reduction in cases of invasive anal cancer and/or death. But in essence the guidelines recommend annual screening with anal pap smears for HIV positive men, and to “consider” screening HIV negative gay men every 2-3 years.

(Brief reminder here:  Cancer screening — prostate, breast, colon, lung, ovarian, you name it — is kind of a complex issue. That, my friends, is so far the understatement of this baby year. In short, just because we can screen for some cancers, doesn’t mean we should. )

Anyway, the release of these guidelines prompted an email from one of my colleagues, a primary care physician, as follows:

I was reading the guidelines regarding recommendations for STI screening in all MSM (including annual HIV, urethral/rectal GC/chlamydia swabs, pharyngeal gonorrhea swab and syphilis testing) — is this something that you recommend in practice? I have a number of MSM patients in monogamous relationships so my approach has been to screen if new partners, etc. — and I have not been screening for everything, e.g., asymptomatic pharyngeal gonorrhea… seems silly, what’s the evidence?
They are also recommending consideration of anal pap 2-3 years in MSM who are HIV negative… Is that something you recommend? I worry that the benefits of downstream evaluation/treatment are not clear. Thanks so much for your wisdom!
Emily [Not her real name #1]

Moments after this Emily query, along came this, from a different physician-colleague, who is a gay man:

Hi Paul,
Wondering what you think of these recommendations for STI and anal cancer screening for gay men. I can tell you that my PCP read aloud the guidelines from his computer screen during a routine office visit. He did not ask me about specific risk behaviors and did not take a sexual history, but recommended anal pap because “according to the guidelines” I should have it done. Because I respected and liked him so much, I did not object, even though I thought it was a ridiculous waste of time and money. It would be helpful to know the strength of the evidence for doing an anal pap in HIV-negative men.
Charles [Not his real name #2]

So what’s going on here? Why did both these smart doctors – one as a clinician, the other as a patient — question the guidelines?

As usual, when faced with this kind of clinical quandary, I turned to the most brilliant person I know about patient dynamics, challenging encounters, and the mysterious emotional world of the people we see in clinic — our extraordinary social worker Susan Larrabee. Here’s her comment, quoted in full since it gets “right to the heart” of the issue, if I may use a phrase commonly employed by one of my favorite writers.

Is it possible some MD’s avoid difficult conversations (i.e. conversations they are uncomfortable having) by doing tests? And perhaps some of these same MDs are making these recommendations? I’m not above this in my own life, especially with my teenage kids and their visits with their pediatricians… they’re certainly not telling me (or maybe not their doc) everything. That is to say, there are many difficult conversations and many ways to compensate for our discomfort or the discomfort of our patients, with over-testing perhaps being one.
Susan [her real name]

This is, of course, exactly the issue. In fact, if one reads the guidelines carefully, it includes this key phrase: “these recommendations should be tailored to an individual patient’s risk profile.”

In other words, you can modify the screening according to the risk behaviors of the patient — but only if you take the time to assess it. Cynics will say that everyone lies about their sexual behaviors, but do we know if that’s really true? Better to ask and to talk about this stuff than just proceed blindly.

Speaking of brilliant, I enthusiastically agree that Pedro Martinez deserved his first-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame.  (OK, admittedly a sudden transition, hence the Dominican Republic flag above.) He was perhaps the most extraordinary pitcher I’ve ever seen pitch live, and I’ve seen this guy, this guy, and this guy too.

Baseball fans, see what you think:

December 30th, 2014

Common Curbsides: The Patient with “Recurrent Zoster”

Just in time for the New Year celebration, here’s a curbside consult I’ve received several times, probably because the answer isn’t in most textbooks. As usual, the actual question is slightly edited, as well as lightly (and affectionately) annotated:

Hey Paul [I like that casual salutation] — Quick question [of course] — I have a patient with a history of irritable bowel, otherwise well, who had shingles on her lower back a few years ago, approximately L5-S1 [love those dermatome maps]. It was pretty bad, but ultimately improved on Valtrex. Since then she’s contacted me several times with recurrent zoster in the same distribution, each time it improves with more Valtrex. She’s not immunocompromised, HIV negative, not on steroids, etc.
Should she be on chronic suppressive treatment? If so, what drug and what dose? And how long should she be on it? Any role for the shingles vaccine? [Hey -- you said "Quick question" -- not "questions"! That will cost you.] She’s only 42. [Agree with the "only 42"; that's very young, at least compared to some ID specialists who have blogs.]
Gracias! [Espanol! Excelente!],
Juanita [not her real name, but it matches with the Spanish expression of gratitude]

There’s a reason doctors have questions about their patients with frequently recurring zoster — it’s because the entity doesn’t really exist. That makes finding guidance for management extremely difficult!

Even a single recurrence is rare — an outbreak seems to boost native immunity — which is why patients with a history of shingles were not included in the pivotal study of the zoster vaccine. Recurrent zoster is so rare that some question whether it makes sense to give the vaccine to people with a history of shingles, though in my experience these are understandably the patients with the greatest motivation to get vaccinated, so I’m glad the guidelines do endorse this practice.

So if it isn’t recurrent zoster these patients are experiencing, what is it? So far all of the cases I’ve been referred have been one of these three things:

  1. Herpes simplex. This is far and away the most common mimicker. Obviously the skin lesions can look a whole lot like zoster, and since HSV is usually found in the oral or anogenital areas, the clinician and patient just don’t think about it when clusters of vesicles crop up somewhere else. (It’s what our very young patient summarized above had, of course.) Establishing the diagnosis is usually straightforward, either through a careful history or viral culture/DFA of an active lesion. Warning — some people with a history of “recurrent zoster” aren’t too thrilled to hear they have herpes instead, especially of the Type 2 variety, so caution when informing him/her of this diagnosis. All kinds of relationship turmoil can ensue.
  2. Post-herpetic neuralgia complicated by “neurodermatitis.” I put that last word in quotes, because that really isn’t the most common use of the term, but it truly fits. Here’s what happens — the patient with zoster has, as a manifestation of post-herpetic neuralgia, tingling and itching at the site. He/She then scratches and picks at it relentlessly, until the skin is red and bumpy — which is then mistaken for “recurrent zoster.” These itchy red bumps really look nothing like shingles, and of course are associated with no viral replication, but the location right at the site of prior shingles fools people.
  3. Wolf’s isotopic response. I’m lucky to have a brilliant dermatologist as a colleague; he clued me in to this oddly named entity, which is a fancy way of saying “a new skin disease at the site of an already healed, unrelated disease.” Turns out herpes zoster is the most common initial skin lesion, and then a whole host of other things can occur in that same site. Despite the name, it has nothing whatsoever to do with radioactivity, but sure will impress your friends if you mention it in casual conversation.

I’m sure this short list isn’t comprehensive, but you get the point. If you and the patient think it’s recurrent zoster, it almost certainly is something else, and the three entities listed above are a good place to start.

Meanwhile, enjoy this drone-enabled video, which appropriately for this post is widely described as “viral.” And Happy New Year!

December 20th, 2014

New HCV Option Effective, Safe, Well-Tolerated — And Use Will Likely Be Driven by Payors

As expected, the FDA approved the next treatment option for HCV on Friday — “Viekira Pak”, a (sometimes complete) regimen consisting of ritonavir-booted parataprevir and ombitasvir given as a two pills once a day, plus one pill of of dasabuvir given twice daily. It is indicated for treatment of HCV genotype 1.

For those of you mechanistically inclined, parataprevir is a protease inhibitor, ombitasvir an NS5A inhibitor, and dasabuvir the first approved non-nucleoside polymerase inhibitor. Ritonavir is there for PK boosting.

Cure rates have been outstanding — 90% and higher – and severe adverse events rare. All good news so far.

So what’s the issue? The full prescribing information is here, but this is the key table:


Obviously, many patients will require concomitant administration of ribavirin, which makes this a considerably more complex regimen than the sofosbuvir/ledipasvir combination pill that has been available since October. Two other disadvantages include more drug-drug interactions (ID/HIV doctors are certainly familiar with ritonavir), and the potential for broader antiviral resistance if the treatment fails.

Whether these make a difference or not in clinical practice is a key unknown. But you can bet good Hanukkah gelt that payors are highly motivated to find out. Here’s some proof.

Hey, Happy 20th Birthday to this classic:

December 14th, 2014

2014 Top Stories in HIV Medicine

Boy do we love end-of-year “Best of …” and “Top Stories of …” lists! Love them! They never gets old! Until January, that is.

My own particular favorites are the Best Movies of the Year lists, since for whatever reason it always seems like some masterpiece slips by. Missed it! So we leave it up to the list-makers, either critics or review-aggregating sites, to remind us. Then we can print out the page, post it next to some Netflix- or other gizmo-enabled viewing device — and, if you’re like me, watch hardly any of the films, since if they were that good and the premise appealed to us when they were first released, then we’d have seen them already in the theater. Oh well.

(While I’m on the topic: There are literally dozens of Best Movie lists to choose from — hey, a list of lists! — just select your source: Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic – which for the record I like more than Rotten Tomatoes, even though it’s less well known – New Yorker, New Yorker againNew York Times, some other city’s newspaper’s opinion, (LA and Boston haven’t weighed-in yet), IMDB, and Little White Lies, which gave us the nifty video at the end of this post.

Anyway — back to ID/HIV. For the last several years, the nice folks over at Medscape have allowed me to post brief videos on various HIV-related topics, including a “Top Stories in HIV” one each December.

These are decidedly low-budget affairs, shot on a antiquated Flip (remember those?) knock-off and usually set in my dining or living room. Here’s the most recent one, and for a special treat filmed this time on location on Tahiti.

(Actually, it’s my office.)

And since I’ve been told that these clips must be short — optimal length is around 3-4 minutes — allow me use this space to expand a bit more on the choices, roughly divided into Prevention, Treatment, Complications, and Cure. And this brevity definitely doesn’t allow digressions about Best Movies of 2014, or the relative value of metacritic.com vs. rottentomoatoes.com, both of which are probably owned by the same giant media conglomerate anyway.

Sorry, there are only seven. Why is 10 so important anyway?

  1. A more emphatic recommendation for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). I initially thought that PrEP was a niche prevention intervention, with the barriers to implementation just too high — the highest-risk patients didn’t get regular health care, compliance would be a chronic problem, and the cost of intervention unsupportable. So what changed? Plenty: a stronger endorsement to use it from CDC; research demonstrating efficacy in gay men even when they are only intermittently compliant; and the results of two other studies (PROUD and IPERGAY, ahem). This has translated into far greater enthusiasm from patients referred to me to discuss the PrEP option — all of the above has made me a believer. Not everyone agrees, of course, most emphatically the head of the AIDS HealthCare Foundation.
  2. Raltegravir beats darunavir and atazanavir in head-to-head-to-head clinical trial. First presented at CROI 2014, this important study showed that virologic outcomes were the same, but the safety and tolerability of raltegravir meant that overall it was simply better. Note that if subjects wanted to switch therapy — say, for a touch of atazanavir-related jaundice — they were allowed to do so and still stay in study, with the alternative medication provided. This no doubt lowered the threshold for ATV discontinuation substantially, but it is in fact what would happen in clinical practice. Two other quick notes: 1) One could argue that the real winner of this study is, ironically, dolutegravir, which we know is just as good as raltegravir, is once-a-day, and comes in a tiny little pill; 2) this is the kind of large clinical trial that the ACTG does so well — or I should write, did so well, since the research agenda has understandably switched to the next scientific challenges of cure and pathogenesis.
  3. Two-drug treatment approaches get some traction. While the NEAT study of darunavir/ritonavir plus raltegravir and the MODERN study of darunavir /ritonavir plus maraviroc added still more disappointing data on NRTI-free, two-drug combinations, along came the impressive results of lopinavir/ritonavir plus lamivudine — again just two drugs — in the GARDEL study, showing that less can definitely be more: the two-drug combination was just as effective, and better tolerated. Furthermore, the boosted PI plus lamivudine combination also seemed just fine for maintenance in the SALT and OLE trials. What about integrase/NNRTI as the two drugs? Cabotegravir (744) plus rilpivirine did quite well as maintenance in LATTE-1, suggesting a completely novel approach to less-is-more. This last result has prompted the development of a single tablet of this combination, along with the ongoing work using both of them as long-acting injectables — the LATTE-2 study, for those keeping track.
  4. Efavirenz associated with a more than twofold increase in risk of suicidality. Ever since efavirenz was approved in 1998, it has been something of a miracle drug from a virologic efficacy standpoint, beating or tying all challengers until it was compared to dolutegravir in the SINGLE study. Sure, efavirenz caused wacky dreams and dizziness, but serious CNS toxicity was difficult to pin down — until now. Acting on a hunch derived from reviewing safety reports from multiple studies, lead-author Katie Mollan designed an analysis that combined several randomized controlled trials, greatly increasing the chance of finding a concerning safety signal, which the paper most certainly did. Results were strengthened by the finding that deaths from injuries or unknown causes were also more common in the EFV-treated subjects. Note that even though the absolute risk of suicidality was low, this is such a serious side effect that it really should give us all pause before prescribing efavirenz to patients with a history of psychiatric illness. (Disclosure — I’m a coauthor on this study.) 
  5. Interferon-free treatment of HCV (finally) arrives. Important because 1) a significant proportion of people with HIV also have HCV ; 2) patients with HIV coinfection now appear to respond just as well as those without HIV (unlike in the interferon days); 3) interferon truly stinks (that was not the first word I typed), and ribavirin isn’t so great either; 4) the first and second generation of interferon-free options — simeprevir plus sofosbuvir then the single-pill sofosbuvir/ledipasvir — are just so amazingly well tolerated; 5) the high cost of something this much better than the existing standard of care raises enormous pharmacoeconomic challenges; and finally, 6) how could the most dramatic advance in treatment of an infectious disease since the discovery of penicillin not be listed as a top story? Enough said.
  6. Early antiretroviral therapy for cryptococcal meningitis worsens outcomes. The COAT study has pretty much settled this controversial issue, with those given ART early having a 45% mortality at 26 weeks, versus 30% in subjects who waited 5 weeks to start ART. Low WBC in CSF was a particularly bad marker for poor outcome in the early ART group. Right now, cryptococcal and TB meningitis are the only exceptions to the rule that early ART is beneficial in patients with advanced immunodeficiency and AIDS-related complications. It’s likely no coincidence that both are forms of subacute meningitis associated with elevated intracranial pressure, where an increase in inflammation — IRIS — can be catastrophic.
  7. Curing HIV — it was hard before, now it’s even harder. The relapses of the two stem-cell transplant patients from Boston and the baby from Mississippi underscored that not only will curing HIV be a monumental challenge, but that the necessary step of getting there — a diagnostic test to tell us if our cure efforts are successful — remains an unsolved problem. In other words, all three of these patients had undetectable (or at most extraordinarily low) reservoirs as measured by the most sophisticated techniques. Not low enough, apparently, and not sophisticated enough either. One important thing to keep in mind as this research proceeds:  we’ll need to make sure we don’t harm anyone with our investigational cure strategies, as current ART is pretty safe and effective.

Back to Top Movies of 2014, now with a video list. Just put your headphones on first.

THE 25 BEST FILMS OF 2014: A VIDEO COUNTDOWN from david Ehrlich on Vimeo.


December 6th, 2014

Holiday Season 2014 ID/HIV Link-O-Rama

village snowA little spin around the internet brings us these ID/HIV tidbits, all of them designed to go well with holiday music, egg nog, and potato pancakes, plus a can’t-miss video clip:

  • Flu vaccine match with circulating virus doesn’t look so great. This could mean it’s going to be a tough flu season, but estimates of flu season severity are notoriously terrible. And here’s a un-bold prediction — this news will make the flu vaccine skeptics (patients and health care providers alike) feel more entrenched about not getting or giving the vaccine than ever. Until there’s a shortage of shots in the midst of a bad flu season, that is.
  • “The Excrement Experiment” is the title of a highly entertaining article on fecal microbial transplantation (FMT) in the New Yorker. Probably should be required reading for all ID doctors and gastroenterologists, if for nothing else than for the nicknames of the “professional” stool donors.
  • Should we reconsider our enthusiasm for PrEP to prevent HIV? Have been holding this one for a while (sorry, it was published a few weeks ago), but it’s one of the best summaries to date describing the conflict between policy makers (such as CDC), who favor PrEP for high-risk HIV negative gay men, and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, led by Michael Weinstein, who most certainly does not. Comments section demonstrates the strong feelings people have on this issue.
  • Even our microbiome gets jet lag says this Cell paper, providing yet another reason why crossing time zones makes us feel so horrible. And not only that, these sleep-deprived bacteria may promote diabetes and obesity. In other words: “These findings provide evidence of coordinated metaorganism diurnal rhythmicity and offer a microbiome-dependent mechanism for common metabolic disturbances in humans with aberrant circadian rhythms, such as those documented in shift-workers and frequent flyers.” Exactly!
  • More fat gain with atazanavir than darunavir-based initial regimens. In this small randomized clinical trial comparing ATV/r with DRV/r (both with TDF/FTC), subcutaneous and total fat increased more in the ATV/r arm, along with triglycerides and markers of insulin resistance. This is exactly the opposite of what I would have expected, which is why doing randomized trials is so important!
  • Polio crisis worsens in Pakistan. Bad news out of what’s called the “world’s incubator” for this scary disease. (Just ask anyone from the pre-immunization era how scary.) Pakistan has reported 260 cases this year, four times the 2013 number. Blame refugee displacement, political chaos, and a Taliban-held belief that immunization efforts are a CIA-driven, covert Western plot. The glimmer of hope here is that the government of Pakistan is deeply committed to broadening immunization rates, and there is apparently good external aid.
  • Is depression really an infectious disease? Could be, says this provocative (but highly speculative) piece in the New York Times. It’s entitled “What if We’re Wrong About Depression?”, and let me answer that question right now — YES WE ARE WRONG, just as we are wrong (or more kindly, “still learning”) about treatment of virtually all major psychiatric diseases. We clearly haven’t figured them out yet. But before we start seeking referrals from our psychiatry colleagues to treat cases of depression with antibiotics, here’s the cited lead investigator’s much more nuanced take: “There’s never been enough compelling data to isolate one or even several infectious agents that are reliably associated with the development of depression.” Sounds right to me.
  • Tapeworm parasite slowly eats a man’s brain. No, not a 1950s horror movie, just the cause of this poor patient’s four years (!) of “experiencing headaches and strange smells.” Serial MRIs demonstrated something slowly crawling through his brain, or more accurately, “migration of the lesions from the right hemisphere through the thalamus” to the left. Ultimately, the diagnosis of sparganosis from Spirometra erinaceieuropaei (you knew it all the time) was made by sequencing tissue from a second brain biopsy sample. And check out the coverage of the case report in The Guardian — the “Related Content” and comments from readers at the bottom of the page are intentionally and unintentionally quite amusing (that is, if you’re an ID doctor).

Hey, what a treat — a Colbert interview with the one-and-only Dr. Paul Edward Farmer:

(Seasonally appropriate hat tips to Drs. Carlos Del Rio and Ralph Blair for helpful suggestions. And you can receive a 100% sterile, autoclaved notification of new posts by entering your email address in the subscription box on the right. Our holiday gift to you, free of charge.)

December 2nd, 2014

CROI 2016 Dates Announced — You Read That Right — and What Will We Be Talking About Then?

As any HIV/ID specialist knows, the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, or CROI, is one of our very best (I think it’s the best) HIV scientific conferences, bringing together basic and clinical researchers for several days each winter in some cold, North American city for high-minded, scholarly pursuit.

But it has historically had a peculiar habit of releasing the dates of the upcoming conference unconscionably late, prompting all sorts of conspiracy theories and sleuthing, some of which I’ve playfully engaged in here.

No more — thanks to Donna Jacobsen from IAS-USA and the organizing committee, last year the CROI 2015 dates were announced before the 2014 conference.

And this year they’ve done even better:

croi 2016

Let the record show that we know the dates of CROI 2016 a full 449 days from now.

And what will the top news from that 2016 meeting be?

What will the top news out of CROI 2016 be?

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HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

Contributing Editor

NEJM Journal Watch
Infectious Diseases

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