By Dr. Paul Ehrlich
When I was five, my father Dr. Leonard Ehrlich, a pediatrician known to generations of Long Island families as Dr. Lenny, thought I was allergic to penicillin. When I was in my third of med school, I participated in a study by Dr. Bernard Levine, who told me I wasn’t, along with 95% of those tested. I told my father and he reiterated that I had been at five. I have since had penicillin twice with no problems.
Cut ahead 40 years or so and the same results are being announced at the ACAAI. Conventional wisdom dies hard. According to NBC News, “Dr. Thanai Pongdee, an allergist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida and colleagues tested 384 people who said they were allergic to penicillin. Tests showed 94 percent of them were in fact, not allergic.
“’These patients were scheduled to undergo orthopedic, general surgery, neurosurgery–any type of surgery you can think of,’ Pongdee told NBC News. ‘We probably expected a little over half of people would not be allergic based on the time frame when they were initially determined to be allergic, but it ended up being a much higher proportion than that.’”
Harmless? Well, not to health, and probably not to your medical bills. Again from NBC: “’There are two issues: these patients are put on other antibiotics which may be less effective and potentially have more side-effects,’ said Dr. James Sublett, a family allergist in Louisville, Kentucky who is incoming president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI).
“’The other is cost. A very commonly used substitute, for example Levaquin, is seven to eight times more expensive for a 10-day course than a similar course of generic Augmentin, a penicillin drug.’”
In fact, my father, who was born in Brooklyn, was the one with the penicillin allergy, and with good reason. Walter O’Malley, the man who took the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles, was also the largest individual shareholder in Pfizer, which made the miracle antibiotic. When the Dodgers left town, Dr. Lenny swore never to prescribe another Pfizer drug. He claimed that sulfa drugs were just as effective as penicillin, and he stuck to his guns. Lenny was still practicing till the day he died in 1992. At a memorial service I asked the leading pharmacist in town about it, and he swore that he had never filled a Pfizer prescription for one of Lenny’s patients.