Fatal Fungus Linked to Deaths – What You Need to Know

Most women – and some men – are familiar with yeast infections. While they are no doubt an uncomfortable nuisance, they are rarely dangerous; or at least we thought.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a new strain of drug-resistant yeast infections has recently been reported spreading throughout the globe. Not only is it resistant to medications, it’s also highly fatal!

Candida auris is an emerging fungus that presents a serious global health threat.

People in the United States have been sickened by this deadly form of drug-resistant yeast that has spread across the world since 2009. The fungus has killed approximately 61 people in the United States to date, and has an estimated 60 percent fatality rate.

C. auris was first identified in Japan in 2009. Since then, infections have also been reported in countries including Canada, Colombia, Germany, India, Israel, Kenya, Kuwait, Norway, Pakistan, Spain, South Africa, South Korea, the United Kingdom and Venezuela. Between May 2013 and August 2016, the first 13 cases were reported in the US. Since then, the number of infections has tripled, signaling a spike in reported cases.

Although 60 percent of people with C. auris infections outside the US have died, the CDC said, that figure is based on a small number of patients, many of whom had other severe illnesses, making it unclear how serious the infection on its own might be.

The fungus can infect wounds, infiltrate the bloodstream and take root in the urinary tract. Not surprisingly, it is resistant to many antifungal drugs. In fact, the fungus is hard to eradicate and has led to some hospital wing closures.

Unlike most common yeast infections, C. auris doesn’t usually cause thrush, but results in bloodstream, wound or ear infections instead – triggering organ failure in the worst cases.

Like other Candida infections, C. auris infections are usually diagnosed by fungal culture of blood or other body fluids. However, C. auris is harder to identify from cultures than other, more common types of Candida. For example, it can be confused with other types of yeasts, particularly Candida haemulonii. Special laboratory tests are needed to identify C. auris.

Candida auris infection may lead to the following symptoms: ear infection leading to hearing loss; wound infections after surgery; bloodstream infections (candidemia); and rarely, Pericarditis (inflammation of the membrane enclosing the heart) in patients with recent heart surgery, leading to hearing loss.

Most people that acquire C. auris have no symptoms, as it can live on their skin and mucous membranes without causing infection. The risk factors for C. auris infections are likely similar to risk factors for other types of Candida infections. These risk factors include recent surgery, diabetes, broad-spectrum antibiotic and antifungal use, and central venous catheter use. Infections have been found in patients of all ages, from preterm infants to the elderly.

Some strains of C. auris are resistant to all three major classes of antifungal drugs. This type of multidrug resistance has not been seen before in other species of Candida. Also of concern, C. auris can persist on surfaces in healthcare environments and spread between patients in healthcare facilities.

It is difficult to know just how dangerous the fungus is, since thus far it has mostly infected patients who were already seriously ill, but the majority of people diagnosed with Candida auris have died.

Some good news is that C. auris hasn’t morphed yet into new strains, and most people’s chances of contracting it are very low, with it only affecting “the sickest of the sick”.

People with good immune system may carry C. auris but, in this case, they will not show any signs and symptoms of C. auris infection. C. auris only becomes pathogenic (disease causing) in people with a poor or compromised immune system, and such people will then show signs and symptoms of this infection.

Prevention of infection is primarily a case for the hospitals. It is important that any infection by C. auris is quickly recognized, accurately diagnosed, and treated. They also need to make sure that the medical devices, hospital surfaces, and staff do not carry this organism around.

However, it is not only the responsibility of the hospitals to contribute to prevention of spread of this new threat. As patients, caretakers, or visitors to hospitals, we need to do our bit and make sure that we know about and maintain proper hygiene and cleanliness. A small action like taking a shower before going to the hospital to visit a patient, being strict about washing the hands properly when reaching the hospital, staying away from things that are microbe bombs – like phones, tablets, cash money – or washing hands immediately after touching these may prevent infection with C. auris in hospitalized patients.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one. Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan. Glenn Ellis, is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. A health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, nationally and internationally on health related topics, Ellis is an active media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics. Listen to Glenn, every Saturday at 9:00am (EST) on www.900amwurd.com, and Sundays at 8:30am (EST) on www.wdasfm.com. For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com