Deadly new fungal superbug is worrying doctors — here's what you need to know

Months after health officials in New York, New Jersey and Illinois raised concerns about a new deadly fungal superbug, a study has suggested climate change may be playing a role in its troubling rise.

“Candida auris fungus” (C. auris) is a multi-drug–resistant fungal infection that spreads in hospitals and is extremely deadly — killing as many as one in three who get it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

While there are likely many reasons that the infection has now spread to 30 countries, authors of the study — published this week in the journal mBio — are blaming climate change. The researchers say global warming has played a “pivotal role” in the infection’s rise, citing the fungus’s ability to “grow at higher temperatures.”

"What this study suggests is this is the beginning of fungi adapting to higher temperatures, and we are going to have more and more problems as the century goes on," Arturo Casadevall, MD, PhD, and Molecular Microbiology and Immunology chair at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said. "Global warming will lead to selection of fungal lineages that are more thermally tolerant.”

As scientists continue to unpack what’s fueling the rise of this infection, here’s what those who are vulnerable to it need to know.

The infection started in Japan.

C. auris was initially discovered in a Japanese man with an ear infection in 2009. It first appeared in the U.S. in 2013, specifically in a series of patients at a New Jersey hospital. Since then, the CDC has tracked over 700 cases nationwide.

Symptoms are difficult to pinpoint.

According to a CDC fact sheet, the fungus can cause “blood stream infections” and is often spread in hospitals and between nursing home patients. Symptoms are contingent on which part of the body has become infected with the illness, but can include chills and fever. A laboratory test is needed to confirm that it is C. auris that’s present, at which point treatment (often with multiple anti-fungal medications) begins.

Hospital patients and the elderly are most at risk.

Like other drug-resistant infections such as C.difficle, C. auris poses the most risk to individuals whose immune systems are already compromised — such as those in the hospital, elderly people and those who use breathing tubes. The CDC notes that “healthy people usually don’t get C. auris infections.”

New York has the highest cases, likely due to travel.

In an email to Yahoo Lifestyle, Michael Phillips, MD, chief epidemiologists and associate professor of infectious diseases at NYU Langone Health, says that C. auris is “following the same pattern” as another drug-resistant bacteria, one which started in New York and then spread nationwide. “This is likely due to travel to and from the NYC area,” he says.

It may not technically be a “superbug.”

The Mayo Clinic defines superbugs as “strains of bacteria that are resistant to the majority of antibiotics commonly used today,” but although many have been referring to C. auris as one, Phillips doesn’t necessarily agree. “In spite of the hype, I would not call C auris a superbug,” says Phillips. His reasoning, in part, is that not all C. auris infections are resistant to drugs.

There is no need to panic.

In an editorial for the Harvard Medical School in May, Robert H. Shmerling, MD, noted that while C. auris is a dangerous infection, panic among the general population is not warranted. “Fortunately, Candida auris has not spread to wide swaths of the population, and healthy people rarely develop the infection,” he writes. “When it comes to infectious disease, it’s never time to panic. Instead, you can take constructive steps to deal with concerns about a wide array of infections, even the deadliest ones.” A great way to start, he says, is regularly washing your hands, receiving all your vaccinations and avoiding people who are contagious.

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