A deadly “superbug fungus” is spreading across the United States and health officials are growing increasingly concerned.
The fungus, a type of yeast called Candida auris, can lead to an infection of the bloodstream, heart, or brain, and these infections are difficult to treat. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced in March that nearly 600 cases in 12 states have been confirmed so far in 2019. Alarmingly, more than one-third of patients who develop an invasive infection from Candida auris die, according to the CDC.
The fungus isn’t just hitting the U.S.: It’s been detected in Asia, Australia, Europe, South America, and Africa. There are three main classes of antifungal medications, and some Candida auris infections are resistant to all of them. This is why some are calling Candida auris a superbug, a name typically given to bacteria that’s resistant to antibiotics.
Candida auris infections may be difficult to recognize, Bernard Camins, MD, medical director for infection prevention at Mount Sinai Health System in New York, tells Health. “The symptoms may not be any different from any other infection you see.” They include fever, weakness, low blood pressure, and feeling tired.
A similar fungus, Candida albicans, muddies the waters further, Dr. Camins adds. “Candida albicans can cause bloodstream infections in health care settings as well,” he says, and it’s hard, even for doctors, to distinguish between the two. The drug-resistant nature of Candida auris, however, “makes it harder to treat,” he says. “That’s the difference.”
Before you freak out: Candida auris has only been reported among hospitalized patients in health care facilities, and only 587 cases have been confirmed in the entire country. People in hospitals, nursing homes, and clinics have a higher risk of falling ill from Candida auris, which lives on contaminated equipment and surfaces in such settings. The fungus can live on your skin and not cause an infection. But if it infects a wound or your blood, it can be fatal. Infections are most common in people with already weakened immune systems, who take lots of antibiotics, or have devices like feeding or breathing tubes going into their bodies, according to the CDC.
However, a recent New York Times report highlighted the fact that it’s not always clear which facilities are affected.
That’s because hospital staff members don’t have to announce to the public if Candida auris has been detected within their facility. In fact, the CDC isn’t allowed to publicly recognize hospitals that are trying to manage the spread of Candida auris and other potentially dangerous bugs, according to the Times report.
Some say announcing the spread of a deadly fungus at a hospital would do more harm than good, keeping people from seeking medical care when they need it. Others say withholding that information isn’t fair. “Who’s speaking up for the baby that got the flu from the hospital worker or for the patient who got MRSA from a bedrail? The idea isn’t to embarrass or humiliate anyone, but if we don’t draw more attention to infectious disease outbreaks, nothing is going to change,” Arthur Caplan, PhD, told the New York Times.
States handle such outbreaks differently, Dr. Camins says. For example, in New York, health care professionals are required to report cases of Candida auris to the state’s health department, he says. The health department then lets the CDC know about the presence of the fungus at a facility.
Health care facilities are taking certain precautions to prevent the spread of Candida auris, Dr. Camins says. Largely, these precautions are “the same things we’ve done for other resistant bacteria.” That includes disinfecting facility surfaces with bleach, he says, and insuring hospital workers wear a gown and gloves when in contact with a patient with a Candida auris infection.
Healthy Americans “probably have a low chance of Candida auris infection,” according to the CDC. Still, it can’t hurt to wash your hands carefully and frequently if you’re visiting or caring for someone in a health care facility. If you’re going to be there often, you might want to consider wiping surfaces around you down with bleach every now and then.
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