It was the first antibiotic to be manufactured synthetically on a large scale. Chloramphenicol is effective against a wide variety of microorganisms; it is still very widely used in low income countries because it is exceedingly inexpensive, but has fallen out of favour in the West due to a very rare but very serious side effect: aplastic anemia.
Chloramphenicol has recently been discovered to be a life saving cure for chytridiomycosis in amphibians. Chytridiomycosis is a fungal disease that has been blamed for the extinction of one-third of the 120 frog species lost since 1980.
Chloramphenicol is available as 250 mg capsules or as a liquid (125 milligram/5 millilitre). In some countries, chloramphenicol is sold as chloramphenicol palmitate ester. Chloramphenicol palmitate ester is inactive, and is hydrolysed to active chloramphenicol in the small intestine. There is no difference in bioavailability between chloramphenicol and chloramphenicol palmitate.
The intravenous (IV) preparation of chloramphenicol is the succinate ester, because pure chloramphenicol does not dissolve in water. This creates a problem: chloramphenicol succinate ester is an inactive prodrug and must first be hydrolysed to chloramphenicol; the hydrolysis process is incomplete and 30% of the dose is lost unchanged in the urine, therefore serum concentrations of chloramphenicol are only 70% of those achieved when chloramphenicol is given orally. For this reason, the chloramphenicol dose needs to be increased to 75 mg/kg/day when administered IV in order to achieve levels equivalent to the oral dose. The oral route is therefore preferred to the intravenous route.
Manufacture of oral chloramphenicol in the U.S. stopped in 1991, because the vast majority of chloramphenicol-associated cases of aplastic anaemia are associated with the oral preparation. There is now no oral formulation of chloramphenicol available in the U.S.
Oily chloramphenicol (or chloramphenicol oil suspension) is a long-acting preparation of chloramphenicol first introduced by Roussel in 1954; marketed as Tifomycine, it was originally used as a treatment for typhoid. Roussel stopped production of oily chloramphenicol in 1995; the International Dispensary Association has manufactured it since 1998, first in Malta and then in India from December 2004.
Oily chloramphenicol is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the first line treatment of meningitis in low-income countries and appears on the essential drugs list. It was first used to treat meningitis in 1975 and there have been numerous studies since demonstrating its efficacy. It is the cheapest treatment available for meningitis (US$5 per treatment course, compared to US$30 for ampicillin and US$15 for five days of ceftriaxone). It has the great advantage of requiring only a single injection, whereas ceftriaxone is traditionally given daily for five days. This recommendation may yet change now that a single dose of ceftriaxone (cost US$3) has been shown to be equivalent to one dose of oily chloramphenicol.
Oily chloramphenicol is not currently available in the U.S. or Europe.
Chloramphenicol increases the absorption of iron.
The original indication of chloramphenicol was in the treatment of typhoid, but the now almost universal presence of multi-drug resistant Salmonella typhi has meant that it is seldom used for this indication except when the organism is known to be sensitive. Chloramphenicol may be used as a second-line agent in the treatment of tetracycline-resistant cholera.
Because of its excellent CSF penetration (far superior to any of the cephalosporins), chloramphenicol remains the first choice treatment for staphylococcal brain abscesses. It is also useful in the treatment of brain abscesses due to mixed organisms or when the causative organism is not known.
Chloramphenicol is active against the three main bacterial causes of meningitis: Neisseria meningitidis, Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae. In the West, chloramphenicol remains the drug of choice in the treatment of meningitis in patients with severe penicillin or cephalosporin allergy and GPs are recommended to carry intravenous chloramphenicol in their bag. In low income countries, the WHO recommend that oily chloramphenicol be used first-line to treat meningitis.
Chloramphenicol has been used in the U.S. in the initial empirical treatment of children with fever and a petechial rash, when the differential diagnosis includes both Neisseria meningitidis septicaemia as well as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, pending the results of diagnostic investigations.
Although unpublished, recent research suggests that chloramphenicol could also be applied to frogs to prevent their widespread destruction from fungal infections.
The most serious side effect of chloramphenicol treatment is aplastic anaemia. This effect is rare and is generally fatal: there is no treatment and there is no way of predicting who may or may not get this side effect. The effect usually occurs weeks or months after chloramphenicol treatment has been stopped and there may be a genetic predisposition. It is not known whether monitoring the blood counts of patients can prevent the development of aplastic anaemia, but it is recommended that patients have a blood count checked twice weekly while on treatment. The highest risk is with oral chloramphenicol (affecting 1 in 24,000–40,000) and the lowest risk occurs with eye drops (affecting less than 1 in 224,716 prescriptions). At least one internet medical source suggests that the link between chloramphenicol eye drops and aplastic anemia is "not well founded".
Thiamphenicol is a related compound with a similar spectrum of activity that is available in Italy and China for human use, and has never been associated with aplastic anaemia. Thiamphenicol is available in the U.S. and Europe as a veterinary antibiotic, and is not approved for use in humans.
There are three mechanisms of resistance to chloramphenicol: reduced membrane permeability, mutation of the 50S ribosomal subunit and elaboration of chloramphenicol acetyltransferase. It is easy to select for reduced membrane permability to chloramphenicol in vitro by serial passage of bacteria, and this is the most common mechanism of low-level chloramphenicol resistance. High level resistance is conferred by the cat-gene; this gene codes for an enzyme called chloramphenicol acetyltransferase which inactivates chloramphenicol by covalently linking one or two acetyl groups, derived from acetyl-S-coenzyme A, to the hydroxyl groups on the chloramphenicol molecule. The acetylation prevents chloramphenicol from binding to the ribosome. Resistance-conferring mutations of the 50S ribosomal subunit are rare.
Chloramphenicol resistance may be carried on a plasmid that also codes for resistance to other drugs. One example is the ACCoT plasmid (A=ampicillin, C=chloramphenicol, Co=co-trimoxazole, T=tetracycline) which mediates multi-drug resistance in typhoid (also called R factors).