Category Archives: Confessions of a Microbiologist

“A taste of my own medicine”

I hadn’t been feeling quite right since Christmas… Upset stomach, loose bowel motions, no appetite, and worst of all I didn’t even feel like a glass of wine in the evenings! The symptoms weren’t that severe, unfortunately not even bad enough to keep me off work, but they just grumbled on and on…

After a few weeks of this, it was time to call in the help of my microbiology laboratory. And sure enough, the enzyme immunoassay for Giardia was positive on my stool sample. I was quite glad it was positive, because at least I had an answer for my symptoms, but also because I hate unnecessary laboratory testing!

I self-prescribed myself some oral metronidazole (“tut, tut…”),  at the high dose that is recommended for Giardiasis. At the higher dosage, it  is not a particularly pleasant medicine to take. It turned my urine so brown, I found myself checking my eyes for jaundice! It also made my morning coffee taste like dishwater.

I now feel much better, back to my normal incorrigible self. Looking back in retrospect, it was a classic textbook case of giardiasis. I have no idea where I got it from, and will probably never know! I don’t envy those who work in the murky waters of Public Health.

There is no better way of learning than experiencing the disease yourself. I would not recommend this however for lots of other infections. Giardiasis is probably one of the “better” ones to catch.

Giardia lamblia trophozoite

Another good way of learning about a particular infection is to get to find out its history. Giardiasis is fascinating in this respect. Giardia trophozoites were first observed in 1681 by Anthony Leeuwenhoek in his very own stool samples, on his funny looking microscopes. Thus it has to be regarded as one of the first infections to be diagnosed by a “laboratory”.

The name Giardia lamblia was in recognition of a French zoologist, Alfred Giard, and a Czech physician, Vilem Lambl,  who each contributed to the description of giardia trophozoites. Initially called Cercomonas intestinalis, it only became known as Giardia lamblia in 1915. It is also still known as Giardia intestinalis.

“Alfred Giard”

However none of these people mentioned actually made the connection between Giardia lamblia and infectious diarrhoea! In fact it wasn’t actually confirmed as a pathogen until the 1970s.

So my awareness of Giardiasis has now increased considerably, and we should all have a low threshold for testing for it in patients with chronic gastrointestinal upset, unexplained weight loss, failure to thrive, etc.

Apparently 200 million people worldwide are infected with Giardia lamblia, so I am not the only one!


“Making a difference to gonorrhoea treatment”

For several years now, the core empirical treatment for gonorrhoea has been intramuscular ceftriaxone. This wasn’t always the case, but the resistance rates for both penicillin and ciprofloxacin have crept up to levels that meant using them as empirical antibiotics was no longer a satisfactory option.

N. gonorrhoeae is particularly vulnerable to antibiotic resistance, essentially because it has no hiding place.

There are not many viable options left after ceftriaxone, so we end up using ceftriaxone on everybody with gonorrhoea or suspected gonorrhoea. And as a result we are starting to see ceftriaxone resistance…

Selection pressure…

The solution of course is to avoid using ceftriaxone on every patient for empirical treatment of gonorrhoea. 

And this is now becoming achievable with the release of a commercial rapid diagnostic PCR assay, ResistancePlus® GC ,that not only detects the presence of N. gonorrhoeae (using both OPA and PorA targets), but also looks for the mutation conferring ciprofloxacin resistance (GyrA S91 F).

In the patients who have ciprofloxacin susceptible gonorrhoea, this will allow oral ciprofloxacin to be prescribed in a timely fashion, thus allowing the selection pressure of ceftriaxone on N. gonorrhoeae to be reduced.

This is a great example of how good diagnostic stewardship can lead to good antimicrobial stewardship. Hopefully such advances in molecular diagnostics will prevent the rather ugly scenario of “untreatable gonorrhoea”


“Permission microbiology”

One of the great things about having your own microbiology blog is that you don’t need to ask anybody for permission. You can write about whatever you want, even if it is only remotely related to microbiology! You have no deadlines to meet. If you want to post three articles in a day, you can. If you want to take a break for a couple of months, no problem.

Even though you don’t need permission, you do need to be ethically and professionally responsible for what you put out there into the ether.

Permission-no, responsibility-yes.

I have never been very good at asking for permission. This is probably due to the fact that I have a somewhat rebellious nature, and a healthy disrespect for authority. I have an inherent dislike of my personal agenda being at the mercy of someone else! I have always preferred begging for forgiveness than asking for permission.

Of course, sometimes you have to ask for permission. On the occasions where asking for permission is unavoidable, then the way you ask for it is extremely important in determining the chances of success…

I.e. “I am planning to do X & Y. Please let me know if there is any reasonable objection to this” is much preferable to “I am hoping to do X & Y. Is this ok with you??”

There is a subtle but critically important difference.

Within the practice of microbiology, there are lots of things you don’t need permission for… You don’t need permission to prepare a presentation for your colleagues, write a journal article, or even write a book. You don’t need permission to question a dubious result or a dodgy methodology, or to suggest a new idea. You don’t need permission to ask for a pay rise, a promotion, or to apply for a new job.

Permission is often something we wait for when it isn’t really needed…