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Tipsheet

The Deadly Fungal Infection That's Tearing Through Health Care Facilities Like a Brushfire

Shawn Lockhart/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via AP, File

The Last of Us might be a show about an apocalyptic fungal infection that turns its victims into mindless zombie-like creatures. It’s a mutated version of the real-life cordyceps fungus, which luckily cannot survive in a host whose internal temperature is above 94 degrees. Scientists claim such a jump is grounded in science fiction only, which is a relief since in the HBO series and the game from which it’s based, everyone who gets infected does so by ingesting flour-based foods. 

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We don’t have that going on, but a fungal outbreak ripping hospitals and healthcare facilities has alarmed officials. Candida auris is a drug-resistant infection that poses a significant risk to the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. Even with the number of cases spiking, experts add that it’s not a threat to healthy people, though one-third of those who contract the fungus die (via NBC News): 

A drug-resistant and potentially deadly fungus has been spreading rapidly through U.S. health care facilities, a new government study finds. 

The fungus, a type of yeast called Candida auris, or C. auris, can cause severe illness in people with weakened immune systems. The number of people diagnosed with infections — as well as the number of those who were found through screening to be carrying C. auris — has been rising at an alarming rate since it was first reported in the U.S., researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Monday. 

The increases, “especially in the most recent years, are really concerning to us,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Meghan Lyman, chief medical officer in the CDC’s Mycotic Diseases Branch, said in an interview. “We’ve seen increases not just in areas of ongoing transmission, but also in new areas.” 

The CDC's new warning, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, comes as the Mississippi Department of Health is fighting a growing outbreak of the fungus. Since November, at least 12 people have been infected with C. auris with four "potentially associated deaths," the state's epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers, said in an email.

[…]

In the CDC report, researchers analyzed state and local health department data on people sickened by the fungus from 2016 through Dec. 31, 2021, as well as those who were “colonized,” meaning they were not ill but were carrying it on their bodies with the potential of transmitting it to others who might be more vulnerable to it.

The number of infections increased by 59%, to 756, from 2019 to 2020 and then by an additional 95%, to 1,471, in 2021.

The researchers also found that the incidence of people not infected with the fungus but colonized by it increased by 21% in 2020, compared to 2019, and by 209% in 2021, with an increase to 4,041 in 2021 compared to 1,310 in 2020.

C. auris has now been detected in more than half of U.S. states, the new study found.

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These infections have always been around, though the COVID pandemic has brought more attention to the many pathogens that could kill us. It’s been a while since there’s been a pandemic. While one million American lives lost to the coronavirus is immense and tragic, it doesn’t negate the fact that roughly 500,000 Americans have died from cancer every year for decades. Tens of millions still contract the flu every year, with tens of thousands dying from it. The number of viruses and infections that can lead to our deaths is immeasurable, but luckily there are multiple vaccines and therapeutics to manage symptoms. Candida is something to pay attention to, but there’s no need to mask up or fear for your lives unless your immune system is compromised, but those folks already live with more precautionary measures anyway.

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