A 'deadly' new fungal infection is spreading across the USA, and nobody knows how to stop it
In August 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the first seven cases of a drug-resistant fungus called candida auris in the USA. It had first been identified seven years earlier in Japan, and had somehow spread to the States.
"C. auris can cause bloodstream infections and even death, particularly in hospital and nursing home patients with serious medical problems," warns the CDC. "More than 1 in 3 patients with invasive C. auris infection (for example, an infection that affects the blood, heart, or brain) die."
Since it was initially noticed, the number of cases per year has been gradually increasing. As of February 2019, there were 587 confirmed cases of the disease in the USA alone - and nobody knows how to stop it.
The fungus normally lives harmlessly on the skin and mucous membranes as a form of yeast, but has recently proven to have become deadly for people with weakened immune systems. Moreover, it has an incredible ability to stay alive outside of the human body - as was discovered when an elderly man died of the infection in Brooklyn last year.
After 90 days of being treated for and eventually succumbing to candida auris, the man had become an incubator for the disease. It had spread all around his room and begun to infest the environment so intensively that, according to the New York Times, "the hospital needed special cleaning equipment and had to rip out some of the ceiling and floor tiles to eradicate it."
"Everything was positive [infected] — the walls, the bed, the doors, the curtains, the phones, the sink, the whiteboard, the poles, the pump," said Dr. Scott Lorin, the hospital’s president. "The mattress, the bed rails, the canister holes, the window shades, the ceiling, everything in the room was positive."
Unfortunately, efforts to find a cure for the bug have so far been somewhat impotent, as the fungus is evolving to become more resistant to known treatments. The reason for this is not known for sure, but it has been suggested that manufactured crop treatments may have something to do with it.
"The strains of drug-resistant C. auris are genetically distinct on different continents, suggesting that the drug resistance is evolving separately but simultaneously worldwide," explains LiveScience. "It's unclear what is causing this rise in these fungal 'superbugs,' but one theory is that widespread fungicide use on crops is prompting C. auris to evolve resistance."
Indeed, the spread of this infection has urged scientists to reissue a plea they have been making for a long time now: unnecessary use of antimicrobial drugs needs to be stopped, otherwise diseases will evolve to become more resistant much faster than we can develop cures to prevent them from infecting - and potentially killing - people.
Candida auris is still a relatively minor threat in the context of how many people it has infected and killed, even if it has spread internationally.
However, studies have warned that - if we do not respond to the matter now - tens of millions of people could die from infections like this by the year 2050.