Mysterious drug-resistant fungus can cause death within 90 days, here's what you need to know
Little is still known about the potentially fatal fungus Candida auris and experts fear the outbreak could get significantly worse if preventative measures are not taken immediately
Health experts have cautioned against the overuse of antimicrobials because of a fear that it would ultimately reduce the effectiveness of the drugs that have, for the longest time, saved human lives from previously fatal bacterial and fungal infections. Evolution would eventually mean that these germs would develop resistance of its own, they said, and they have been proven to be correct.
Reports of these so called 'superbugs' — which are more difficult to treat and often require alternative medication— have been increasing over the past decade, and they are often a result of the overuse of antimicrobials in humans and animals. In the cause of drug-resistant fungi, it's thought to be because of the rampant use of fungicides in crops.
The latter of those might just prove to be one of those moments humanity looks back upon and wonders, 'What exactly were we thinking?' Candida auris is a fungus that is as deadly as it is mysterious, and like most superbugs, is fatal to those with a compromised immune system.
While its symptoms — fever, aches, and fatigue — are seemingly ordinary with those whose immune systems are intact, it causes what is called "invasive candidiasis" in those with weakened immunity. This usually sees the bloodstream, the central nervous system, and the internal organs infected, and can often prove fatal.
Its origins remain puzzling, with it believed that doctors first encountered it in the ear of a woman in Japan in 2009. The CDC similarly theorized that it started in Asia and then spread across the globe, but when they compared the entire genome of auris samples from India, Pakistan, Venezuela, South Africa, and Japan, they found it was not just a single strain.
The New York Times reported that there were, in fact, four distinctive versions of the fungi with "differences so profound that they suggested that these strains had diverged thousands of years ago and emerged as resistant pathogens from harmless environmental strains in four different places at the same time."
And the stories of its resilience are positively terrifying. When an elderly man infected with Candida auris died at the Brooklyn branch of Mount Sinai hospital, tests showed the fungi was everywhere in his room. It proved to be so invasive that the hospital needed specialized cleaning equipment and had to rip out some of the ceiling and floor tiles to eradicate it.
Speaking about the fungi, hospital president Scott Lorin said, "Everything was positive — the walls, the bed, the doors, the curtains, the phones, the sink, the whiteboard, the poles, the pump. The mattress, the bed rails, the canister holes, the window shades, the ceiling, everything in the room was positive."
The Royal Brompton Hospital in London felt its full force in 2015 as well. The fungus had somehow taken root in the hospital and no matter what they tried, the staff could not get rid of it. They eventually enlisted the help of Dr. Johanna Rhodes, an infectious disease expert at Imperial College London, who theorized that aerosolized hydrogen peroxide would creep into every corner and eliminate it.
After a week of doing the same, they put a "settle plate" in the middle of the room with a gel at the bottom which would serve as a place for surviving microbes to grow. The only one that grew back? Candida auris. In June 2016, while still suffering from the problem, the hospital took the drastic step of shutting down its ICU for 11 days in a bid to solve the problem.
The New York Times reported that over the past five years, the fungus had also hit a neonatal unit in Venezuela, a 992-bed Hospital in Valencia, and taken root in countries as geographically diverse as India and South Africa.
The situation in the US doesn't make for a pleasant reading either. So far, 587 cases have been reported in the country — 309 in New York, 104 in New Jersey, 144 in Illinois, as well as a few cases scattered across California, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and five other states.
The CDC said that more than 90 percent of Candida auris infections are resistant to at least one drug and that around 30 percent are resistant to two or more drugs. Furthermore, half of the patients who contract the fungus die within 90 days. It has reached a point where the organization has added it to its list of "urgent threats."
Solutions remain scarce, and with the abuse of antimicrobials continuing unchecked, there seems to be no end in sight. The CDC estimated in 2010 that two million people in the US contract resistant infections annually, and that of those, 23,000 end up dying. But more recent figures from researchers at Washington University School of Medicine put the death toll as high as 162,000.
Worldwide fatalities from resistant infections are currently said to be around 700,000 a year, and the forecast for the future is grim. A study funded by the British government predicted that if policies were not put in place to slow the rise of drug resistance, 10 million people could die worldwide of such infections in 2050, two million more than the expected number of deaths from cancer the same year.